Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015-06-09: Autonomy Incubator's #DancesWithDrones To Expand With New Set Pieces

The #DancesWithDrones hashtag has been one of the darlings of the Autonomy Incubator's Twitter feed for months now, and with good reason— it's an amazing demonstration of what autonomous vehicles can do and how safely they will someday integrate into our daily lives. 

But, just what is #DancesWithDrones? Picture the scene: A UAV is flying back and forth, as if ferrying a package from a delivery truck to the front porch of a house. But suddenly— oh no! A person wanders into the path of the vehicle as it barrels toward the house! Disaster will surely ensue, right? Not so, thanks to the work of the Autonomy Incubator team and student intern Gil Montague. Rather than colliding with the person, the UAV will detect and avoid (safely go around) them if there's sufficient space to do so, or stop and hover in midair until its path becomes clear again.  Here's a video of a demonstration that Gil did just last week for NASA's Associate Administrator for Education:

The nickname "Dances With Drones" comes from the way Gil dodges and zigzags around the vehicle like they're partners in a tango. 

This demonstration is fun to watch, absolutely, but it's also a symbol of the massive amounts of work that the Incubator is putting into a side of robotics called path planning.  Essentially, the path planner program uses input about the robot's position and surroundings— in this case, from the ViCon TM— to, well, plan a path for the robot from its current position to its goal while avoiding all obstacles in the environment.  When the obstacles move, the path planner changes the path. That's where we get #DancesWithDrones: Gil, the obstacle, forces the path to change every time he blocks the UAV from its goal.  

The prop "house" that arrived today is the first of three houses that will soon populate the incubator as part of a new challenge. The UAV must now not only find a path from the truck to the house, but also choose the right house on the "street" based on human input like the address or even the color of the house, all while continuing to avoid moving obstacles. This new version of #DancesWithDrones serves as a hopeful precursor to a future in which autonomous machines, independent of systems like the ViCon, can navigate safely and efficiently in the real world.

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