Thursday, July 30, 2015

2015-07-29: Autonomy Incubator Puts On A Show for Youth Day

A young crowd looks on in anticipation as one of the kids pilots a UAV with Meghan Chandarana's gesture sensor.

Save for the hum of UAVs and the occasional shout across the flight range, the Autonomy Incubator (AI) is usually a quiet workspace, conducive to deep thought and uninterrupted coding. This was not the case today, as three waves of elementary school-aged children flooded into the AI for demonstrations, stickers, and the chance to fly a drone with gesture control. NASA Langley's annual Youth Day brings children from the Hampton Roads area on-center for a day of tours, and this year, the AI was on the schedule.

The program was short and fast-paced, designed to keep the attention of a room full of children while being easy to reset between the three tour groups. When each bus of visitors arrived, AI Head Danette Allen ushered everyone into the main room and gave a quick safety briefing.

Danette goes over safety precautions and fire exits.

Then, all the children crowded at the front of the net to watch interns Josh Eddy and Gil Montague do a kid-level version of #DancesWithDrones. Josh, playing the "crotchety neighbor" who ordered the UAV delivery, did an old man voice that never failed to get laughs from the kids, and Gil handed out the contents of the delivery package—NASA stickers!—to the enchanted crowd afterward.

Gil explains obstacle avoidance to the largest crowd of the day.

Then, just as our smaller guests were already brimming with excitement, Danette announced the second half of the demo: each of them was going to get the chance to fly a UAV exactly like the one they'd just seen.  Meghan Chandarana, the AI's resident gesture control expert this summer, demonstrated the gestures for take off, front, back, left, right, and land. Then, the kids took turns (by the third demo we learned to make them form a line) trying to navigate the UAV through an obstacle course we created out of Dr. Loc Tran's tree-dodging forest. There was a lot of barreling into trees and cheers of delight, plus some of them were really, really good at navigating the course. Better than the engineers, even.

"You can tell which are the ones that play video games," Meghan remarked.

Our tiniest pilot of the day.

Another UAV pilot in training.

 Not to brag, but there's no other way to say it: we crushed this demo. The kids, faced with flying robots that can think for themselves and that they can magically control with only their hand, were completely enthralled. One pair of brothers even tried to get right back in line after trying Meghan's demo because they were so excited to be UAV pilots. If the goal was to convince the youth of today to become the NASA scientists and engineers of tomorrow, then we can comfortably say that we did more than our part for the effort. 

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