Friday, July 21, 2017

2017-07-21: Autonomy Incubator High School Volunteers Compete in Rover Challenge

This summer brought a flood of high school volunteers to the Autonomy Incubator; between the contingent of students from the Governor's School and the kids volunteering through NASA connections, we hosted ten students from the Hampton Roads area. Originally, Ai head Danette Allen set them all to work on the same task: build a rover to carry a 25lb robotic arm.

However, division soon occurred within the group. One contingent wanted to use a commercial RC car base for maximum speed, while the other argued for building a tank-like base with six wheels for agility. Rather than making all of them agree on a design, Danette had a better idea.

"Do both," she said. "Split into teams, and at the end, we'll have a competition."

So, on the final day of the Governor's School students' stay at the Ai, volunteers Xuan Nguyen and Payton Heyman built an obstacle course and we had a robot rumble.

Xuan and Payton crafted the track from elements around Building 1222
For the results of the rover-off, you'll just have to watch the video. It's impossible to describe the sheer robot joy that all of these teenagers brought to the Ai over the last couple of weeks. Great job, everyone!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

2017-07-19: Autonomy Incubator Intern Abigail Hartley Opens Up a New Chapter

by Payton Heyman, a social media specialist-in-training

Abbey writing a post for the Autonomy Incubator Blog.

Abbey Hartley, an adored member of the Autonomy Incubator family, joined the team back in 2015 as a social media intern, but will soon be leaving to further her career after getting a new job with CBS.

Abbey grew up in Lake Wylie, South Carolina, and graduated just last year from Dartmouth with a degree in English.

 “I sort of stumbled into the job,” she explained, talking about how she first started at the Ai.  “My mother is good friends with Dr. Danette Allen, and she had told me to email her at the end of my junior year.”

 She ended up becoming the first person to ever formally work solely in the social media field here, and thanks to her, it has come a long way.  When she first started working in the summer of 2015, she only made daily Twitter updates and blog posts with the occasional short video made with iMovie, as the position was very new.

 When intern Kastan Day joined her in the summer of 2016, they made a great team and elevated the social media presence even more.  Better software became available, and within the next year the Autonomy Incubator Instagram, YouTube channel, and Facebook came to life, opening up a realm of creative ideas.

 “[The job] was great, I loved it!  I was the only person I knew interning at NASA.” Abbey expressed about coming back for a second summer.

 “I’m always learning here and there are rarely opportunities like this for people like me.” She added.

Abbey hand flying a drone for a research project back in February.

After returning as a NASA intern four separate times, she decided to begin applying for jobs outside of the Langley Research Center, and has just recently scored the position of a multimedia journalist for CBS in Washington D.C.  Here she will be a reporter for and is beyond thrilled for the opportunity.

 Her grandpa was a nuclear physicist during the Cold War and her brother anticipates on joining the air force as a flight surgeon following the completion of medical school, so she has a lot of connections with the subject matter and cares deeply about it.

 The company mainly hires veterans and people who have experience in working for the federal government.  Since Abbey has three years under her belt and a family history of employment in the military, she fit the job perfectly.

 “There are a lot of things out there for veterans, but they don’t even know about it,” Abbey explained,  “[the company] has really good things going for it.”

 Her potential last day here at the Ai is the eleventh of August, but she continues to do great things in the office every single day that passes.

 “I’m really going to miss the people here.  Everyone here is my friend, and it’s going to be really hard to leave what has become my family from the only job I’ve ever really had.  Hopefully, I can come back and visit somehow,” she said.

 Extraordinary things are approaching for Abigail Hartley, but her fun spirit, determination, and strong work ethic will be missed greatly.  Her contributions here have been remarkable, as she has, without a doubt, left an immense footprint on the Ai.  We all know she is destined for success and we are looking forward to seeing her start a new chapter in her life next month. God speed, Abbey!

2017-07-19: Autonomy Incubator Aids in Coordinated Ozone Measurement Effort

In a very cool side quest to the OWLETS mission, the Autonomy Incubator launched a Hive UAV to measure atmospheric concentrations of ozone while a balloon and a C-23 Sherpa aircraft from Wallops simultaneously collected similar measurements.

The Sherpa took off from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore, then flew south across the Chesapeake bay and performed a spiral above the CBBT island where OWLETS takes measurements. Then, it flew over to NASA Langley and performed a spiral while researchers on the ground launched a weather balloon and flew a Hive loaded with sensors into the air to take samples.

By taking the same measurements in multiple ways, NASA can collect correlative data about the composition of our atmosphere. This is the first time the Autonomy Incubator has been part of such a massive coordinated flight campaign, and it was thrilling for all of us.

Stay tuned for more about OWLETS, including the science from OWLETS PI, Tim Berkoff.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

2017-07-18: Volunteers Compete for the Best Rover

by Payton Heyman, Ai social media specialist-in-training

Cameron Fazio and Eric Smith prepare their rover, Churromobile, for a test drive.
Whose rover will reign victorious here at the Autonomy Incubator?  Seven high school students, some volunteers and some part of a residential governor's school program, are competing against each other in two opposing groups to answer that question.

The goal of the competition is to successfully build a mobile rover in order to mount a 25-pound robotic arm on the top.  This arm will be capable of moving a 7-8 pound wooden truss; however, the rover must be stable and not tip when the arm extends.

The interior of ChurroMobile prior to adding hinges and a flat base to prop the arm on.
The first step of the project was the design, in which they focused on the creation of multiple 3D digital mock-ups to help decide on a final model.  Different components were then ordered to start their task.  Most were commercial, off-the-shelf parts, but some were ordered from a robotics competition vendor.  The majority of them came in a kit where all of the pieces, screws, and instructions are included, allowing them to easily assemble the rover with only some slight modifications needed for additional equipment.

Then, each team had to wire up all of the electronics on the rover.  Luckily this was quite simple since the controller board that is being used has several components in one.  For example, it connects the speed controllers to the motor, as described by Eric Smith, one of the governor's school students and member of Group One.

Eric Smith started working with robotics in seventh grade and has continued
working with them for nearly five years, as he will soon begin his senior year this fall.
"In our case, the electronic wiring is relatively simple," Eric stated after several
years of experience in clubs at school and competing in robotics competitions.
Once the rover can move smoothly, an arm will be attached to the top in order to extend and grab the trusts created by Xuan Nguyen, a volunteer and competitor in Group Two.

The quarter-scale trusses are fairly basic structures made of wooden sticks, plastic cardboard, and hot glue.  It is half a meter tall with a triangular base.

Xuan built the trusts out of light material with assistance from one of the other volunteers, Ian Fenn.
Group One has nicknamed their rover ChurroMobile with an arm by the name of Gal-GaBot. ChurroMobile was moving quite successfully by the third week and will have the arm attached very soon.

Featured below is Cameron Fazio, another governor's school student.  In this video he is proving the strength and mobility of their rover by grabbing onto it and having it pull him in a rolling chair throughout the halls of the Autonomy Incubator.

Group Two is also making great progress in the competition.  Their rover goes by the name of Ironbot with an arm named RobotDowneyJr.

According to Group Two member Billy Smith, the easiest part of the process for him thus far was "understanding the project itself and what to do, but ordering the parts and using older technology came as a slight difficulty, but we have managed to do just fine."

Billy Smith, governor's school student, working on part of the base for Group Two's rover.
Ian Fenn attaching the wheels to the flat base of the rover.
The end of the competition is just around the corner and the champion group will be announced soon after evaluation.  Both groups have been working very hard in hopes of winning and eagerly award the upcoming Rover-Off. So, stay tuned!

Monday, July 17, 2017

2017-07-17: Autonomy Incubator Makes Historic OWLETS Flight Over Chesapeake Bay

The Ai's Jim Nielan and Danette Allen were present for CBBT ops
along with Ryan Hammitt, Eddie Adcock, Mark Motter, and Zak Johns.

The OWLETS (Ozone Water-Land Environmental Transition Study) mission officially began with its maiden voyage over the Chesapeake Bay this morning, making the Autonomy Incubator and NASA Langley's earth scientists the first team to ever measure ozone levels directly on the land-water transition. Hive Three, one of our four Hive vehicles, carried an ozone monitor and four CICADA gliders from the Naval Research Library to take meteorological data.

Today's event was only the first of many OWLETS flights, all of which will take off from the third island of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (CBBT).

In addition to Hive-3 and its suite of sensors, NASA Langley also deployed a weather balloon and a lidar trailer to study atmospheric composition near the land-water transition.

The lidar trailer uses two high-powered lasers to determine
atmospheric composition.

The weather balloon also takes ozone and meteorological data,
but follows wind patterns instead of flying a set route.

Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage as this historic mission continues! Who knows, maybe our social media intern will be out there reporting from the field sometime soon. Until then, check out this video of one of the final practice missions, which we flew right here at NASA Langley:

Friday, July 14, 2017

2017-07-14: Autonomy Incubator Highlighted in Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot's Centennial Address

Flip to minute 3:18:27 of the NASA Langley Centennial Symposium to hear NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot give the Autonomy Incubator a shout-out during his speech!

"And speaking of autonomy," he said, "the researchers here at [NASA] Langley's Autonomy Incubator are developing and testing algorithms and robotic systems that represent a step toward the safe operation of autonomous drones in aerospace." It's always nice to hear we're doing something that can be a source of pride for the American public, especially from the NASA Administrator.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

2017-07-13: Autonomy Incubator Welcomes Social Media Volunteer Payton Heyman

Payton edits pictures for a blog post.

In addition to the passel of high school students volunteering on the research side of the Autonomy Incubator this summer, the Ai has also enjoyed the hard work of a social media volunteer. Payton Heyman, a rising senior at Hampton Roads Academy, has joined us for two weeks of her summer to help run the Ai social media empire.

Although Payton will be the first to tell you she's loved computers for many years– "I used to make PowerPoint presentations for fun when I was little," she said– her time in the Ai has provided a chance to explore a new realm of ideas.

"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "It's cool learning about actual robots and NASA stuff."

"Everyone here has been super welcoming," she added.

Payton took her first trip to the Back 40 today to document some outdoor test flights.

An avid filmmaker who intends to go to college next year to pursue a film degree, Payton has found a place to learn new skills and even draw creative inspiration in her work for the Ai.

"I love editing videos; I think it's so much fun," she said. "[The work I'm doing here] is giving me inspiration for the stuff I wanna do in my own short films."

In fact, we'll continue to see Payton as a contributor to Ai social media in the future: she likes it here so much that she intends to keep volunteering during the school year as her busy senior-year schedule allows.

"I want to come back!" she said.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

2017-07-10: Autonomy Incubator Welcomes Crime Author Patricia Cornwell

The Autonomy Incubator is a popular stop for visitors to NASA Langley. Over the years, figures such as the mayor of Newport News, the Flight Commander of the First Fighter Wing from joint base Langley-Eustis, and even former NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden have come by Building 1222 to see our UAVs dodge trees and deliver 3D printed bananas. Today, we flew and Danced-With-Drones just like any other tour day in the Ai, but this time, the audience was international best-selling author (and avid helicopter pilot) Patricia Cornwell.

Patricia Cornwell arrived punctually at 9:30, still clad in her flight suit from landing her Bell 407 JetRanger on-Center just minutes before.

Danette Allen and Patricia discuss some of the challenges facing autonomous flight.
Power lines and moving ground vehicles, for example, are difficult obstacles to detect
and avoid, even for humans. 

"I don't know if you remember, but we've met," Ai lab head Danette Allen said. Patricia toured Danette's previous lab, a virtual reality rapid-prototyping initiative, before Danette started the Autonomy Incubator.

"I do! It was October twenty-second, 2007," Patricia responded. "You know how I know? I found it in my journal."

Danette Allen and Kerry Gough walk Patricia Cornwell through a VR
crime scene in the Mission Simulation Lab (MiSL) at LaRC in 2007

"I have carbon fiber envy," Patricia said during her tour of the Hive vehicle.
Danette explains how CICADA gliders navigate autonomously.

Patricia asked a slew of questions about everything from obstacle avoidance to the nature of autonomy, relating some of her own experiences as a helicopter pilot and the things she'd seen on tours of other NASA centers. In addition to recording the entire visit for her own use, she took copious notes in a small orange notebook, jotting down everything that caught her interest– including the name of the Ai's management support assistant, Carol Castle. Perhaps we should keep an eye out for Carol's name in any future Kay Scarpetta books?

After a thorough introduction to the Ai and the work we do, Danette brought Patricia into the flight area to meet the team and see our research in action. First up was Ben Kelley, presenting our classic Dances with Drones object-avoidance demo.

Patricia was especially interested in how we track Ben's location through fiducials on his hat.

Next, Ben and Loc Tran demonstrated the 3DEEGAN object detection and classification system.

"I hope it sees me as a person and not an alien," Patricia joked. Don't worry, it did– although we'd like to think that if a friendly extraterrestrial landed at NASA Langley and wanted a tour of the Ai, we would happily oblige. We are a space agency, after all.

Patricia compared browsing our wide selection of custom UAVs to being in
a Ferrari dealership. We think they're pretty cool too.

Finally, we closed the day by flying a miniaturized version of our package retrieval mission– always a crowd-pleaser.

Ben explains the visual odometry running onboard the vehicle to detect the package.

Today's visit was so successful that we might expect a return visit from Patricia Cornwell in the future. With her infectious enthusiasm for all things aviation, she's welcome at the Ai anytime.