Friday, June 26, 2015

2015-06-22: Autonomy Incubator Triumphs in Demo For Deputy Administrator

After last week's flurry of high-profile visitors to the Autonomy Incubator (AI), our witty and beautiful social media intern has spent every spare second compiling material specifically for today's post: the recap of the AI's visit from Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. You followed our preparations, you saw the live tweets, and now, at last, the day has come to experience our demonstration for Deputy Administrator Newman in full multimedia glory.

The Deputy Administrator, accompanied by Center Director David Bowles, arrived at Building 1222 at 4:30pm on Thursday, and was greeted by a crowd of Autonomy Incubator team members, representatives from NASA Langley's administration, and scientists from other related programs at Langley. Dr. Danette Allen, the Head of the Autonomy Incubator, gave an introductory speech focusing on how unique the AI is in both its research h thrust and its use of agile development... in her words, "doing different work, but also working differently."

Center Director Bowles provides some background  information on the Autonomy Incubator to Dr. Dava Newman
Danette answers a question from the Deputy Administrator

After the introduction to the AI, Jim Neilan conducted a showcase of the technology and vehicles that the AI uses in its pursuit of autonomous flight, such as lidar and the Mars Electric Flyer.  Danette used the opportunity to get a picture with everyone in the lidar display.

Jim explains the AI's involvement in the Mars Flyer project
Danette strikes a disco pose as Garry takes a picture

All this talk of robots and vision provided a perfect segue into Alex Hagiopol's presentation, in which he gave a live demonstration of the PTAM (Parallel Tracking And Mapping) visual odometry algorithm that he recently finished testing.

Alex gives a brief overview of visual odometry

PTAM in action

Finally, Anna Trujillo used visual odometry as a springboard into her topic, human machine teaming, by explaining how a UAV that can "see" features and avoid them autonomously could be implemented in a suburban setting to deliver packages. She even clicked through a prototype user interface that a delivery service employee could use to set up a delivery, including choosing where around the house the UAV drops the package (the front porch or the side door, for example). Annaalso described the Autonomy Incubator's intention to perform an outdoor, full-scale demo here on center within the next year, which was met with much excitement from the crowd.

Anna points out the area of the center we'll be using for on-center outdoor package delivery

At last: the hour of flying robots was at hand. The Deputy Administrator and the Center Director donned safety glasses and stepped into the flying range, the net separating the viewing area from the demonstration was drawn back, and Dr. Loc Tran introduced the live demonstration: the UAV's task was to take off, navigate through the forest into the neighborhood and deliver its banana package to the porch of the red house despite any obstacles it may encounter (#DancesWithDrones).  As a tongue-in-cheek surprise, the interns incorporated a little bit of theater into the demonstration— Josh became the inhabitant of the red house who had ordered a banana (for scale!), and Gil played his clumsy friend who kept wandering into the path of the UAV.

Loc introduces the live UAV demo

Gil dances with drones as Josh looks on from the safety of his home

Gil explains the UAV's safety stops

Once Gil stopped "dancing", Javier stepped in to introduce his and Bilal's coordinated flight demo while other AI team members scrambled behind him to replace the UAV with a fleet of four vehicles, all wearing their new NASA cowling decals. This demonstration, Javier explained, was actually a small-scale model of a mission they had designed for LaRC scientists to collect data with vehicle-mounted ozone sensors. The four UAVs took off in unison and flew in a slow, ascending spiral, then one flew into the middle of operational area and the other three orbited it for a while before they all landed simultaneously.

Javier provides some insight into the algorithms behind the flight

Nick and Bilal look on determinedly as the UAVs ascend

Bilal steps away from the computer and narrates the flight, emphasizing that these vehicles are flying by themselves
With that, the live demonstration came to an end, and everyone moved to the other side of the net for a look at the GL-10 aircraft.  For those who aren't familiar, the GL-10 is an aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically, yet also able to transition into forward, fixed-wing style flight.  It's not strictly an Autonomy Incubator project, but our team has been involved since its beginnings— plus, it's really, really cool. The GL-10 team even brought an Oculus Rift VR headset that played a 360-degree flight video, which the Deputy Administrator used to take a virtual flight on the aircraft.

Bill Fredericks talks the Deputy Administrator and the Center Director through the GL-10's innovative design

The Deputy Administrator takes flight on the virtual GL-10

Finally, having seen all the many wonders of the Autonomy Incubator, Deputy Administrator Dava Newman bid the crowd farewell, and expressed her anticipation of our outdoor tests. "I'll have to put in my banana order!" she said.  

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