Friday, June 24, 2016

2016-06-24: Autonomy Incubator Builds Foundation for More Outdoor Flight Testing

Zak Johns pilots Orange 1 (aka OG-1).
Despite the extreme weather we've been having in coastal Virginia the past few days (or weeks!), the Autonomy Incubator (Ai) teams managed to take advantage of today's sunny morning to get outside and get to work. Today was especially fun because we had four of Langley Air Force Base's air traffic controllers join us to watch our UAVs fly and get an idea of what we're doing over here, since they hear so much about it on the tower radio.

"In order to fly, we have what's called a Letter of Procedure, or LOP, with Langley," CERTAIN (City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation) project manager Jill Brown, who works in close cooperation with the Ai for these outdoor flights, said. "Tethered or untethered, [flying] always requires live communication with the tower."

On the flip side, A1C Brandon Johnson-Farmer told the Ai crew, "When you guys first started flying, we used to get the binoculars out in the tower and and have contests for who could spot it." Sadly, we usually don't fly high enough for people on the Air Force base to see us over the trees, so today was the first time any of our friends from the Langley tower had seen an Ai vehicle fly.

Airmen Breanna Bowen, Jonathan Watkins, Caleb Rowles,
and Brandon Johnson-Farmer
The flight itself was similar to the flight we performed two weeks ago, in that it was an opportunity for the PIs involved in developing our PTAM (Parallel Tracking and Mapping) algorithm to gather valuable in-flight data about how good the latest version of their software is at tracking and mapping the UAVs movements without GPS data. Throughout the flight, PI Jim Neilan made sure to explain what was going on to our guests from Langley.

"We have to set the exposure and tune the camera manually," Jim said to the crowd as he pointed to the PTAM display where the algorithm was picking out points and creating gridded maps. Pilot Zak Johns kept the UAV in a gentle hover so that Jim and co-PI Kyle McQuarry had time to monitor the instruments and make adjustments.

Zak and Jill Brown lay out the 100-foot tether before takeoff.
While the test flight was going on, PI Ben Kelley and NASA GIS surveyor Jason Baker paced around the outskirts of the Back 40—the field out by the Gantry where we fly—and used a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver to mark out GPS points for future path-planning tests.

"We're getting high-accuracy GPS points for you guys to use as waypoints," Jason said. "There's a base station over in Building 1238 and another radio on the Gantry. We get 95% confidence from a two-second reading."

"Which is like thiiis much error," Ben added, holding his fingers about three inches apart.

As the Ai's algorithms continue to get more sophisticated and demand more advanced testing, these outdoor tests are becoming increasingly crucial to our mission. Soon, pending approval, we'll be able to liberate our vehicles from their tethers and start using a new geofencing system to contain our vehicles during tests, which will enable us to perform even more, exciting tests and even—cross your fingers!— demo outside. All of our efforts now are crucial, concrete steps toward achieving vision of the futures for small autonomous UAVs.

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