By Will Grant
A swarm of nano quadrotors has a menacing presence. The video embedded below is from the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory.
The flying robots are the work of professor Vijay Kumar and two graduate students. Kumar gave a lecture at this year’s Technology, Entertainment, and Design Conference in Long Beach, California, about how the robots work.
“This gets a little challenging,” he says in the lecture, “because the dynamics of the robot are quite complicated. In fact, they live in a 12-dimensional space.”
The quadrotors in the video have preprogrammed flight paths. Motion sensors in the lab’s ceiling guide the robots, which calculate flight commands 600 times per second. To a degree, they’re autonomous: There is no pilot. The robots determine themselves how best to get from point A to point B while coordinating their motion with their neighbors’ motion.
Kumar and his students have shown that the robots can fly through hula-hoops, build small structures, and even play music. Their payload may be light, but they’re potential uses are many. For starters, the menacing-looking swarm could probably find good work off the coast of Somalia or in the Persian Gulf.
But for such missions, the UAVs will need to be weaned from their controlled, indoor environment. Though these quadrotors rely on the overhead sensors for guidance, there are some that do not.
The Aeryon Scout unmanned aerial vehicle may have the most impressive resume of any quadrotor out there. It weighs 2.5 pounds, is 80 centimeters across, and has a payload of 400 grams. It has maximum flight time of 25 minutes, a maximum altitude of 500 meters, and is controlled by a PC tablet.
“For anyone who’s ever used Google Maps,” says Ian McDonald, vice president of product and marketing for Aeryon, “using the Scout is very intuitive. You really don’t even fly it—it flies itself. You just tell it where to go. It’s point-and-click flight.”
The Scout’s payload is most often a high-resolution camera, a 10x optical zoom video camera, and a thermal FLIR infrared camera. The Scout can stream live video to nearly any device and is capable of over-the-hill surveillance up to 3 kilometers away. Its ability to endure 80 kilometer-per-hour wind gusts is unrivaled.
Aeryon released the Scout in 2007, and in 2008 the first buyers were military customers. Almost immediately, the tactical value of the qauadrotor became clear.
In 2009, reconnaissance by a Scout helped local law enforcement in Central America arrest a drug lord. From about 850 meters outside the compound that held the drug lord, security forces launched the quadrotor to survey the area. After all, if nobody’s home, there’s no sense in raiding the place.
“They were looking for confirmation that [the drug lord] was there,” McDonald says. “They were looking at what vehicles were there, how the compound was secured, how high the walls were, and where there was barbed wire.”
The Scout flew for 12 minutes at an altitude of 39 meters. It shot 14 photos and six minutes of video. After it returned to its point of take off, authorities moved on the compound and arrested the target suspect.
This past summer, when Libyan rebels needed to know Gadhafi’s troop positions, they ordered a Scout. Zariba Security Corporation, in cooperation with the Libyan Transitional National Council, delivered a Scout to frontline troops making the push on Tripoli. Within minutes, the rebels had their Scout airborne and an overhead view of the battlefield.
At last year’s Defense and Security Equipment International exhibition in London, Aeryon flew the Scout during a mock anti-pirate operation and streamed live video from the quadrotor to a big-screen television inside the conference. Just weeks ago, a Scout surveyed sea-ice thickness to help a Russian fuel tanker trying to reach the port of Nome, Alaska. As you read this, a Scout is probably shooting video of sea lion colonies on the Aleutian Islands so biologists can better estimate the secluded, wary populations.
On March 4, 2012, a single-rotor UAV crashed into a SWAT vehicle during a police test and demonstration near Houston. No one was hurt, and the armored vehicle only suffered minor “blade strikes.” But the incident underscores one of the main concerns with drones: If they get away from their controller, where will they go next?
The Government Accountability Office is at the top of the list of those worried about a rogue drone with no guiding hand. And there’s no doubt that when the malfunctioning drone came out of the sky near Houston, it would have been no picnic to have the copter crash in your lap.
Most drones, including quadrotors, are programmed to return to their point of take off if they lose communication with their controlling tablet, run low on batteries, or otherwise malfunction. Precautions like these are aimed at satisfying the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to McDonald of Aeryon, the FAA enforces tighter regulations than does Transport Canada, the governing body of aviation in Canada. To him, that means there are more quadrotors used in Canada than in the US.
At some point, the question becomes, what advantage does using a quadrotor have over using a fixed-wing or single-rotor drone? Besides the ability to hover (consistent point-of-view reconnaissance) and take off and land vertically (every ship deck or flat piece of ground is a launch pad), quadrotors are significantly easier to fly than the aforementioned drones.
If Libyan rebels can successfully fly a Scout after only minutes of training, a stateside cop should be able to figure it out.
“Compared to helicopters, hands down these things have taken over the market,” says John Ohnemus, president of operations for Airfoil Aerial Systems. “People come back and tell us all the time that they picked up how to work this thing ten times faster than anything else they’ve used to get done what they want to do.”
Airfoil, based in Lorraine, Illinois, has had its flying drones in the public-service sector for months. Ohnemus and his staff surveyed the tornado damage in Joplin, Missouri, immediately after the storm.
The company uses H3 Hummers as launchpads for their drones. They drive up, snap the robot together, set it on the hood, and minutes later have high-resolution overhead images of the surrounding area. And lately, the most valuable images have been spherical photos.
Experts insist that spherical photos aren’t really panoramas. Instead, they say, spherical photos are 360-degree photo collages where the camera stays in one place and “you’re actually in the photo.” Over the flattened Joplin, Ohnemus’s drone took 12 photos in 4 seconds. Ohnemus then sent his images to the storm prediction branch of the National Weather Service.
Local and state Illinois law enforcement agencies have used Airfoil’s drones for a variety of missions. With the thermal-imaging capability, the drones have an obvious role in search and rescue scenarios. Overhead photos have also proven useful for reconstructing automobile accidents, evaluating structure fires, and even busting a methamphetamine lab. Airfoil’s biggest customers lately have been power companies wanting to survey transmission lines.
The Q700-Pro has a starting retail price of $3,900 ready to use out of the box. The drone is operated by a standard RC controller, and you can equip it with your own DSLR camera.
As far as sending a swarm of quadrotors to the Middle East, Rob Jenks and Dick Ahlborn of Intelesis Technologies are working hard to make it a possibility.
“Our ultimate goal, if given the opportunity by Uncle [Sam],” Jenks says, “is to come up with a mini mobile air wing, performing the same functions you would have of with an air wing off an aircraft carrier, just all miniature. If you did that, every deck becomes an aviation-capable deck.”
Jenks and Ahlborn have met several times with the company Advanced Tactics, which just secured a contract with the US Air Force for a large quadrotor that would serve as a battlefield MEDEVAC, to develop small UAVs with a variety of capabilities. Specifically, they want a quadrotor not only able to visually relay a picture of the battlefield, but one that could also be weaponised.
“We want to shape the battlefield by identifying who’s who, and prioritizing targets in sufficient time so that you know what’s going on,” Jenks says. Their quadrotors will be highly autonomous, he says, “electing their own leaders for formation, and arriving on location knowing exactly what to do.”
As far as weapons, Jenks and Ahlborn are pursuing a miniature kamikaze quadrotor that will most likely be tube launched and will use a cellular phone network to determine distance between aircraft and position. And they want to be able to send a fleet of them into a given scenario.
“Possibly thousands of them,” Jenks says. “The technology exists to fly a gazillion of the things.”
The drones could also carry a disco-ball laser designator to help identify and track targets. Whatever the final product, a flight of quadrotor drones could be used in the not-too-distant future to dissuade Somali pirates or sink Iranian skiffs.
“The military is intrigued by the idea of having numbers,” Jenks says. “And were exploring a bunch of different UAV combinations. Essentially, like in the Persian Gulf, every ship deck could be a lilly pad for refueling or whatever.”