Friday, September 17, 2010

iPhone Controlled Quadcopter!

iPhone apps seem like they can do anything these days. Need to answer an email? No problem! Want to see when the next bus is? Piece of cake! Want to toss virtual cows for fun? I don't know why you'd want to, but sure thing, coming right up!

Want to remote pilot a Micro Aerial Vehicle?

Yes, there IS an app for that!

PhysicsBuzz visited the lab of Dr. Missy Cummings, Director of the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT and former Navy fighter pilot who has been researching how to make complex automated systems people friendly (Extra points if you noticed the acronym for the lab is HAL).

Machines are capable of great things, but really are only as good as their operators.

That's where Dr. Cummings and her iPhones come in.

Her research focuses on looking at ways humans control machines and how to design control systems that people can intuitively "get." Because people interact with machines on a daily basis in countless ways, this research encompasses a lot of ground. One of her many projects is a tiny, four-rotor helicopter about the size of a small pizza box - a MAV - that can be flown using an iPhone. Small flying vehicles like that can be devilishly hard to control, needing constant attention to correct for changing wind conditions and the like. Buy a kit toy helicopter and the clerk will tell you that you are pretty much guaranteed to crash it sooner rather than later.

Using computers, the quad-copter automatically corrects for any imbalance it detects, and can hover above the ground without any person maintaining it. This simplifies the controls to the point that one needs only to mark out a point on a map for it to fly to and it can get there by itself.

After it reaches the general area, the iPhone switches to the "nudge controls" which lets a person control the flight in real time as if they were playing a videogame on their phone. Paul Quimby of the research lab explains:

To show off how easy it is to control, the team put together an interactive demonstration. They give a person who's never used the system before some basic instruction on how to tilt the iPhone to steer and then put them in charge of flying the little copter with a camera mounted on it. The copter is in a separate room that the person has never seen before, and is told to find and read an eye chart hidden somewhere within it. Though having received only minimal instruction, nine out of 14 participants were able to identify the smallest line of letters with 100-percent accuracy.

The idea is to show that computers have progressed to the point that vehicles can essentially fly themselves. Cummings and her team of tinkerers are working to further improve their robo-flyer. The team has on hand a couple of small LIDAR units, radar using lasers, and plan on hooking them to the bottom of the copter. This way the LIDAR will be able to map out the terrain as it flies to prevent itself from crashing if someone accidentally tells it to fly into a wall.

There are wide ranging commercial applications for an easy to use vehicle like this. Already law enforcement is looking into flying robots for surveillance, emergency services are keen on it for search and rescue and scientists are looking forward to its exploration capabilities. Just recently it was announced that a small ground robot will be used to explore the hidden passages in the Great Pyramid at Giza. Imagine the possibilities of a MAV flying between the walls of narrow caves or over the treetops of impassible jungles. Making technology simple to use blows open the door of possibilities. Plus it looks like tons of fun!

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