Thursday, July 2, 2015

2015-07-02: Autonomy Incubator Hosts Test Flight for DIY Quadcopter

Mark Agate pilots his handmade UAV as Jim Neilan looks on

The Autonomy Incubator (AI) flight range has seen a diverse array of aerial vehicles, from the Mars Flyer to hex rotor UAVs, but today was definitely a first for Building 1222. Mark Agate, an intern from Dave North and Bill Frederick's team, came over to test the altitude maintenance system he's building on a quad rotor made out of foam board, hot glue, and color-coded tape.

"It's just a regular quad rotor; the box is just there so it has lift," he said of his unusual creation.  With a propeller on each corner, the square craft can fly and maneuver in much the same way as any off-the-shelf UAV.

The point of Mark's homemade UAV is not its unique design, but rather its cargo. Using only an ArduinoTM, a sonar sensor, and a KK2TM control board, Mark is designing a system that performs the same altitude hold function as an autopilot, without the rest of the autopilot. It's a "slimmed-down version," Mark said, made from small, basic components. Essentially, its job is to keep track of the UAV's distance from the ground and maintain that altitude on pilot command. Eventually, the function will integrate into an autonomous system.

Once Mark conducts a few more tests in pursuit of an efficient, reliable altitude hold system, his device will go on the Mars Flyer and work in conjunction with the computer vision system that AI intern Alex has been working on.

Appropriately, we have a printout of the Mars surface gracing the floor of the AI
right now. Alex has been using it for his visual odometry research.

"The goal is to keep [the Mars Flyer] level," Mark said.  "We need the altitude hold for the computer vision to initialize. It needs that zero reference point."

When the Mars Flyer takes off on Mars, it will take off in VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing), transition to forward flight, activate Mark's altitude hold system, and then begin using visual odometry once it has enough data to see where it is in relation to the planet surface. Because the altitude hold uses such lightweight hardware,  it's well suited to fit aboard the extremely light Flyer.  Until Mars 2020, however, we're enjoying having the Mark Flyer in the Autonomy Incubator fleet.

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