Friday, March 31, 2017

2017-03-29: Autonomy Incubator Hosts Chief Technology Council and Ft. Eustis Commander of 1st Fighter Wing

Dr. Loc Tran demonstrates object classification on the crowd.

This was a big week of demonstrations at the Ai, with two groups of brilliant minds coming through to learn about our autonomy research. Tuesday brought a crowd of officials from NASA's Chief Technology Council (CTC) and Chief Technology Office (CTO), while Wednesday, we demonstrated for Army Colonel Pete Fesler, Commander of the 1st Fighter Wing (ACC) Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

Ai head Dr. Danette Allen addresses the CTO delegation.
Danette explains our motion capture system to Col. Fesner.
We pulled out all of our greatest hits for this round of demos. First, we warmed up with Dances with Drones (DWD), starring Ben Kelley.

DWD is always a crowd-pleaser. After Ben finished demonstrating the real-time path replanning algorithm, Col. Fesner exclaimed, "I didn't know we could do that!"

Next, Dr. Loc Tran gave an overview of our computer vision work. He combined the 3DEEGAN convolutional neural network and the work he's doing with MIT into one demonstration of object recognition and classification.

Finally, we showed our guests a scaled-down section of our payload delivery mission from last summer: one of our large quadrotors took off, autonomously navigated to the ozone sensor site, and then used a downward-facing camera with a natural feature tracker algorithm to locate and collect the sensor. Here's the video of the whole mission if you want to see one of our moments of glory.

We were thrilled and honored to share our mission with so many visitors this week. Congrats to the whole team on a flawless pair of demos!

Monday, March 27, 2017

2017-03-27: Maiden Voyage of the First OWLETS Vehicle

Zak Johns assembles the Hive vehicles in front of the Lunar Lander Research Facility.
Our OWLETS (Ozone Water Land Environmental Transition Survey) atmospheric science mission is moving forward after our visit to the CBBT earlier this month— last week, we flew a Hive vehicle outside for the first time, complete with the full atmospheric sensor suite.

Mounting the ozone sensor to the top of the Hive

Because the sensor package is uniquely shaped compared to our previous research packages (it's tall, and mounted on the top of the vehicle instead of the bottom), we ran these test flights as very short missions to observe the vehicle in-flight. If the sensor affects the flight behavior of the vehicle at all, it's important to find out now so we can mitigate it right away. Longer tests are scheduled for next week, but so far, the vehicle flies beautifully.

Look at that stability!
The atmospheric science team also used the opportunity to test the sensors. Even from the short couple of flights, the data stream looked reliable and accurate.

NASA scientist Guillaume Gronoff examines the ozone data.

Friday, March 24, 2017

2017-03-23: See How We 3D Print Our Way To Better UAVs

Ben Kelley, a small GPS chip in his hand, approached Nick Woodward's desk.

"This is going to go on a vehicle, but I can't find a case for it anywhere online," he explained, handing over the chip.

"I can do that," Nick said.

Nick, an intern and recent grad of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has many jobs around the Ai, but chief among them is what he calls "the CAD guy." Thanks to what he's accomplished in his three-year stint in the Ai, CAD (computer assisted design) and 3D printing have become a part of everyday operations– which means faster prototyping for our whole lab. Where before people would have had to go outside the Ai to get custom components designed and fabricated, Nick can whip up a quick plastic prototype in less than half a day.

"It provides us with a relatively new and unique advantage of being able to rapidly prototype multiple options for a given solution," he added. So, if he has more than one idea about how to approach a problem, he can just print up both and see which one works best. 

On occasion, Nick sends a successful prototype out to the NASA Langley printing lab because "their abilities for production are way greater than ours... you're looking at a machine the size of a queen bed and about 8 ft tall." Today though, he planned to put his creation straight from our printer onto the vehicle.

It's all measurement taking to start with. Nick uses calipers and takes down the exact dimensions of the chip, noting outlets and screw holes, while he thinks about how to create the best case for it. In less than an hour, he's got a completed first draft.

"If there are multiple parts," he said, "I make sure everything fits together as intended in simulation and then print it out."

Our tabletop printers are extruders, which means they essentially function like very precise hot glue guns– they feed a spool of solid PLA plastic into a heated tip that applies the melted plastic to the work surface in thin layers. The machines are very fast, but also very delicate. Before Nick can fire up the print, he has to make completely sure that the machine is in full working order. This includes cleaning the extruder: cranking the temperature up as high as it goes, letting it cool, and then extracting the purged excess plastic with a pair of pliers.

"What are you doing now?" I asked as he ducked his head practically inside the machine.

"Calibrating," he said. If the extruder head isn't exactly the right distance away from the work surface, or if the axes aren't tuned just right, the print will come out off-kilter. Same for if there's any dirt at all on the surface– before starting the print, Nick has to buff it several times with a paper towel.

"If there's anything between the plate and the PLA when it goes down, it can pull away from the plate mid-print and ruin the print," he explained. There are other ways of making sure your print sticks to the plate– you can rub the printing surface with a glue stick, or coat it with a layer of painter's tape– but Nick prefers to just keep the environment as clean as possible. 

Once everything is ready to go, Nick starts the print and walks away. There's nothing to do now but wait.

"Ideally, you wanna make a print that you can put on in the morning and pick up before close of day, from a prototyping standpoint," he said. The time a component takes to print is dependent on not just the size of the piece, but also the "infill"— basically, how dense the inner honeycomb structure of the print is. Lighter infill pieces print faster, but won't be as hardy. It's a balance Nick has to consider whenever he makes a new prototype.

"I had a twenty-six hour print once," he added. It was the cone and tetrahedron package delivery system he created last summer. 

Once the print is finished, Nick gently pries the pieces off the printer bed and hands them over to Ben. Here he is, assembling the case around the GPS chip.

This first draft turned out pretty well, but Nick said he's doing revisions for a second iteration.

"The inside is about two millimeters too shallow," he said, "and I need to research closing mechanisms that don't require screws." Luckily, a new and improved component is only a few minutes of CAD work and an hour of printing away.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

2017-03-13: Autonomy Incubator Visits Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Site for Science Mission

Jim examines the control room.

Jim Neilan, Ben Kelley, and intern Nick Woodward accompanied other representatives from the OWLETS project on a trip to the third island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel (CBBT) early this morning. The CBBT connects mainland Virginia with the Delmarva peninsula.


The island is where we'll set up our control station and take-off/land for the mission, because it's perfectly situated for ozone sampling on the land-water transition. Why is that so important? Because this mission will be the first time EVER that someone has sampled ozone directly at the transition. In-situ measurement at the land-water transition is completely unprecedented, and we're going to be the ones to do it.

You can almost see Chic's Beach if you squint.

Escorting the team on this excursion was Chief Edward Spencer, the Chief of Police on the CBBT. The bridge-tunnel is so large that it comprises its own "political subdivision" with a police force and special first responders– how cool is that?

The CBBT is giving us the use of this awesome huge garage.

NASA scientist Guillarme Gronoff and an associate discuss sensor placement
with a CBBT employee.

The Hive vehicles carrying ozone sensors, barometers, and other instruments would take off from here, overlooking the north side of the bridge-tunnel, before autonomously flying over open water to take measurements at the land-water transition. It's set to be the largest outdoor mission we've ever flown, as well as the first flight over water.

Don't worry, we're not visible from the road and won't be distracting
drivers with our UAV antics.
Thanks to the CBBT for welcoming us and our robots! We can't wait to get underway with this daring endeavor and start flying some UAVs.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

2017-03-02: Autonomy Incubator Launches Facebook Page

After years of bringing autonomy research to the people through an ever-expanding suite of social media platforms– Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and of course, this blog– the Ai is thrilled to announce that we finally have a Facebook page. It took years of waiting and building our presence, but we're approved and fully operational!

Of course, with this excellent news, now might be a good time to explore why the Autonomy Incubator puts such unprecedented effort into maintaining an internet presence in the first place. We have a full-time intern (sometimes a staff of interns) dedicated to keeping the public informed about day-to-day operations at the Ai, when most labs might have a Twitter page at most. From my perspective, social media forms a vital part of the Ai's mission as an autonomy lab. How? I'm so glad you asked.

Dr. Danette Allen, the head and founder of the Ai, often says that the our purpose here is, "To enable new missions in science, space, and aeronautics through reliable autonomous operations and human-machine teaming." Essentially, we're developing autonomous robots with the intention that these intelligent machines will someday become a positive part of everyday, civilian life. They'll deliver our packages, they'll find our lost hikers, they'll join our scientific research teams– if we, as a human race, let them. Autonomous machines can only help us as much as we're willing to allow them to help, and therein lies one of the largest problems in autonomy.

People outside of the tech community are often still wary of "artificial intelligence," mostly because of the media surrounding the issue. When I tell people about where I work, a lot of them say something like "So, you're making SKYNET," or "Oh my god, have you seen Black Mirror?" Intelligent machines have a way of capturing the more fearful parts of our imagination, as harbingers of a future marred by our own hubris. A harrowing vision, but one that's difficult to reconcile with the happy little drone that I played keep-away with in our flight range yesterday.

A post shared by NASA's Autonomy Incubator (@autonomyincubator) on

Here's the thing: machines are not inherently evil. Actually, they're pretty great! The capabilities that the Ai and labs like us are developing could vastly improve quality of life for everyone, but not if we're too scared to use them once they arrive. Emerson once wrote, "Knowledge is the antidote to fear." In the technology age, social media is the most effective way to administer treatment.

Through the Ai's social media presences, we're constantly giving the public insights into what we're doing and how we're doing it– breaking down concepts like deep learning and GPS-denied navigation in a way that's accessible to everyone, especially those outside of the tech world.  I focus on writing every blog, caption, and tweet in the clearest language possible so that anyone who comes across us can instantly know what we're doing and, hopefully, want to learn more. We've had some success reaching the average American through our existing platforms, but now that we're on Facebook, our content just became easier to share than ever before.

As we celebrate this new facet of bringing autonomy and humanity together, we–I – profoundly appreciate your support. Every like, follow, and share we get puts our stories in front of new people, and our circle of light spreads just a little further. Thank you for helping us make the future possible.

– Abigail "Abbey" Hartley, NASA LaRC Ai Social Media Intern