Friday, July 8, 2016

2016-07-08: Autonomy Incubator Celebrates Successful Outdoor Autonomous Science Mission

Today, despite a heat index of 105 degrees and a frankly Biblical amount of ticks, the Autonomy Incubator (Ai) team took to the skies and completed not one, but two dry runs of our outdoor waypoint following and package delivery demonstration.

The entirely autonomous flight was completed by a custom-built quadcopter carrying the Ai's full research load: lidar, inertial motion sensors (IMUs), GPS, three Odroid computers, several downward facing cameras; everything we've ever developed is on this UAV.

"We exercised every capability we need for a successful mission," Ai head Danette Allen said.

Here's a map of our complete route. We took off at the red waypoint, followed the path to the yellow waypoint, descended to just above the ground and simulated dropping off a package  (an ozone sensor for our atmospheric science mission), then returned to flight altitude and made the trip back. Again, all of this happened without anyone piloting the vehicle or cueing it. The PIs just hit "go" on the algorithm, and away the UAV went.

Fun fact: the white path intersecting the orange waypoint is where NASA
used to test landing gear for the space shuttle.

While today's tests used GPS data, further tests will focus on the visual odometry algorithms that the Ai has been developing. In the final demo, the initial package drop-off flight will be GPS-enabled, and the pick-up flight will be purely visual odometry-guided. The precisoin landing for recovery of the ozone sensor worked well. We can't get much closer than this...

OG-1 lands on top of the yellow and silver sensor sensor enclosure

We're still waiting on the go-ahead to autonomously fly untethered, but in the meantime, Ai head Danette Allen thought up a solution to give our UAV as much mobility as possible while we prepare for our demo: fishing line. PI Jim Neilan served as the official drone-caster, walking behind the vehicle with rod and reel in hand. Insert your own fly-fishing pun here, or let the Ai Twitter do it for you:

The success of today's flights is important not just because they validated the hard work and research of our PIs and interns, but also because they were our first real-life clue of what our demo is going to look like. Being on the Back 40 today was like watching the trailer for a movie we've been waiting to see for three years.

"Today was the first day that we ran our full flight profile," Danette said. "We flew all the trajectories for our science payload mission."

The only major element we have left to rehearse, now that we know we can fly, is the real showstopper of the demo: a second UAV taking off and interrupting our flight path, which will demonstrate our obstacle detection and avoidance capabilities. We've demonstrated this inside the Ai many times and will fly untethered soon so that we can Detect-And-Avoid in the real world. This part is Deegan and Loc's time to shine as the UAV uses computer vision to understand its surroundings in real-time.

When will the Ai finally drop the curtain and roll out our best demo yet? Not until the relentless Tidewater heat subsides, according to Danette.

"It's so brutally hot, we're not gonna do it anytime soon," she said, and confirmed early fall as the projected date for the demo. For now, keep September marked on your calendars and check back here for updates.

No comments:

Post a Comment