Thursday, June 25, 2015

2015-06-24: Autonomy Incubator Supercharges UAV Fleet With New Quadrotors

One of the Green Machines, with a 3D printed housing designed in the AI

As Autonomy Incubator Head, Danette Allen, announced during Deputy Administrator Dava Newman's visit last week, the AI will soon begin performing test flights with a fleet of four fully customized UAVs to replace the off-the-shelf Parrot AR.DronesTM that have served us well and will continue to be used for rapid development and test. However, the new quadcopters are sturdier, more powerful, and more versatile in research applications than consumer-level drones.

The main difference between UAVs sold for recreation and our customized ones, affectionately called "Green Machines," is the intent behind their design. The COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) vehicles we have are excellent for interactive demos like #DancesWithDrones because their protective cowlings and light weight make them easy and safe to handle. For example, look at Javier testing the robustness of these four AR.Drones earlier this week:

The downside of using these vehicles lies in their limitations for our research— most COTS vehicles just aren't built to fly autonomously. Their controls aren't designed that way, and they're too light to carry anything heavier than a 3D-printed banana (for scale!). With the Green Machines, researchers at the AI can write their own algorithms in a way that's intuitive for what they're doing, which is going to provide unlimited opportunities for innovation. In addition, these vehicles can generate enough lift to carry a sizable payload of hardware, and that's where things really start to get exciting.

A side-by-side comparison.
What a cool-looking piece of aviation.

What's under that little green hood? From the computer running the flight algorithm to the autopilot controlling the motors, everything is onboard. There's even a speaker on top as part of a human factors effort called intent management, which lets the vehicle announce its next move to the humans in the area. All these onboard capabilities are critical for the researchers as we move away from running our flight algorithms on a desktop computer and using the laptop to transmit instructions to the vehicle, all via Wi-Fi. This solution works beautifully as long as every link in the communications chain is running smoothly. By putting all the technology onboard, however, we are no longer challenged by comm issues. With the aerial robot generating its own instructions and no complicated lines of communication, autonomous flight becomes more reliable and efficient.

There's only one way to keep that much equipment in the air and agile, and it's by laying down some serious thrust with those propellers. Safety is already a top focus of the Autonomy Incubator, and with these more powerful vehicles, that focus will only intensify. Even now, everyone in the building remains behind the net when something bigger than an AR.Drone takes flight. If the researchers conducting the flight absolutely must be in the indoor flight range with the Green Machines, they'll be wearing safety goggles, possibly a hard hat, and working from a safe distance away. 

But this progress brings a pressing question to the surface: what will become of #DancesWith Drones once the Green Machines move in?

"I'm not standing in front of it!" #DancesWithDrones creator Gil Montague said, laughing. "There will be a different obstacle. Maybe we'll get a rover and tape a cardboard cut-out of me to it."

Even though this new era will mean losing his place in the spotlight, Gil is confident that we only have better and more spectacular things to expect from the AI in demonstrations to come.

"[The Green Machine] opens up a whole realm of more compelling demonstrations," he said.

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