Saturday, June 18, 2016

2016-06-17: Autonomy Incubator Installs Overhead Projection System

Interns Josh Eddy and Andrew Patterson lay down white foam tiles to make the "screen."
Latecomers to the Autonomy Incubator (Ai) today did not arrive to find the usual brightly-lit flight range full of industrious engineers, but instead stumbled into what looked like a deleted scene from Tron.  Our new projectors are here!
The team helps the electrician align the projectors.
The projections cover almost half of the flight range, and the new capabilities they bring will advance the Ai's work in an exciting variety of ways. First and foremost, Pi Jim Nielan explains, they allow us to project an autonomous UAV's path planning algorithm onto the environment as it flies, so that observers can see the vehicle making decisions in real time, at scale.

"We can show visitors our work," Jim said. "As in, this is what the algorithm is thinking right now."

Projecting a live feed of an algorithm during a test flight will also increase the speed at which the engineers in the Ai work, Jim said, because it creates an easily-digestible visual representation of what's working and what isn't.

"I think it's going to increase our effective debugging. We're... visual learners," he said. "It really allows us to see what the algorithm is doing."

The new projectors will streamline the way we test path planning and visual odometry algorithms: instead of ordering large-format prints of an environment and taping them onto foam mats, a researcher can just find a high-resolution picture of the pattern or place they want to work with and project it right onto the floor. There are, of course, concerns about shadows, but Jim isn't worried.

"We can do pattern matching and visual odometry—SVO, PTAM— on a large scale on the floor," he explained. "If we can really see what's happening, then we can process that info much quicker than if we were looking at an equation or a bunch of code."

"We can do this if we're smart about how the vehicle moves around in front of the lens," he continued. Further, Ai lead Danette Allen adds, "There are shadows outside on a sunny day. Our systems must be resilient to these types of real world challenges."

A view of the full projection field.
The Ai joins its partner labs at MIT and University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne by using floor projections:"We've been working on this for about a year... other people are doing this and finding benefit," Jim said.

Jim is personally excited for the path-planning and visual odometry applications the projectors will have for his research in integrating autonomous systems. We'll keep you updated on all the scientific (and silly— this is us, after all) exploits the PIs and interns have with our new projectors right here on the blog.

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