Cleared for Landing
“Flying robots are cool! It’s as simple as that.”
That’s what recent Seidenberg grad Keith McPherson ’13 will say when you ask him why he and Seidenberg Professor Rick Kline, PhD, teamed up to build their own drone, an autonomous quadrotor unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a flying quadcopter, and to research current and potential applications for them.
Their interest in quadcopters goes back two years to a college level competition affiliated with the FIRST Robotics program. Dr. Kline mentored a team, captained by McPherson, which built their first flying robot for the event, only to see it suffer a fatal crash on the first day of competition. This attempt may have ended poorly for the pair, but it did not damper their interest in the field. When the Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research Initiative opportunity came up, they jumped right on it and started over from scratch.
“We used Aeroquad, an open source platform for building the quadcopter,” says Kline, “There are three parts to Aeroquad… a discussion forum where people exchange their ideas and help one another, the hardware and building tutorials, and finally the software projects that people are using to control their vehicles.” Since neither have any formal engineering training, these and other resources were essential for their work.
With their software expertise, McPherson and Kline worked to develop code that would allow them to control their quadcopter using a WiFi connection to a laptop, taking input from handheld game controllers and rendering a virtual cockpit instrument display real-time on the screen. These replaced the more typical use of dedicated “RC” radio controllers that are one-way devices locked into issuing only motion commands.
“With the software and computer programming, we can tell the vehicle to not only move here or there, but to do flips, take photos, and record and stream live video,” says McPherson. Kline adds that “Technology keeps evolving so quickly. The control board that handles the live video costs $35, is the size of a credit card, and has the same power as a $2,000 desktop machine from 10 years ago.”
As they investigated different applications for the quadcopter, they encountered another group of drone enthusiasts who were exploring theirs for possible journalist usage for reporting news that was happening outside of traditional news organizations, such as during the Arab Spring. Should there be an event where traditional methods of communication were shut down, such as turning off Internet access, those who wanted to stream news out could use their phones or set up ad hoc networks to share images captured by their flying drones of what’s happening on the ground. McPherson shared many ideas with them and volunteered to do some web site development work for the project.
The pair also explored the use of drones for commercial purposes, such as capturing aerial images of neighborhoods and buildings for use in real estate sales and the like. Unfortunately, during their research, they found that this type of use is currently illegal, though flight regulations will be changing in the near future to take drones into account.
The building of the quadcopter included plenty of snags and took far longer than the pair anticipated, but the web sites and forums run by other drone enthusiasts were of great help in overcoming problems they encountered. “One of the biggest surprises for me while working on this project was discovering how big the Internet community is of people who are interested in building these things and sharing their expertise and sharing their designs,” Kline says, “That allowed us to do a whole lot more than if we were starting from and working in a vacuum.”
Two years ago, McPherson developed similar code for controlling the drone via computer and submitted it to the Aeroquad project with the hope that it would be included in their offerings. Despite the community’s enthusiasm over the submission, the code was not accepted to be part of the open source material. Now, after having participated in Pace’s research initiative, the pair hopes to resubmit their refined software for future inclusion with Aeroquad. McPherson believes that the Aeroquad people will be really impressed with improvements made to the virtual cockpit and that they potentially will integrate their new software. “Research publications are always nice—and they are what’s expected of a faculty member—but for a student to be able to have significant contributions to a huge open source project, that’s exciting to me and I hope we’ll be able to pull it off,” concludes Kline.
To learn more about their project and the Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research Initiative, visit www.pace.edu/uri.