Noelle Swan

MIT Researchers Operate Unmanned Helicopter Via iPhone

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2011 at 7:44 pm

This article first was published by New England Post on November 16, 2011.

Imagine a soldier deep in enemy territory at the foot of a hill. The objective of his mission lies on the other side of that hill, but so might enemy forces. Or consider a fire chief coordinating containment of a forest fire. He needs information about what is happening inside the blaze, but sending in firefighters would put much-needed personnel at risk. What if that soldier and that fire chief could send in a small, lightweight helicopter to scope out the scene without risking any human life?

Turns out, there is an app for that.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working in conjunction with Boeing for the last two years to cultivate an iPhone application to remotely control “micro aerial vehicles”—or small-scale helicopters, about 20-inches long with 8-inch rotor diameter. In the last year the program application has undergone several successful trials testing its ability to function in a real-world outdoor environment, the capability of remotely controlling vehicles over long distances, and the accessibility of the controls to an unskilled operator.

MIT master’s candidate Kimberly Jackson and three other students working on this project conducted the first outdoor test of the technology last January in Arizona. “We had operators, literally pulled off the street. We handed them an iPhone, gave them three minutes of training, and said, ”Okay, now fly around this area, find an eye chart and read it to me, and find an image of a person and tell me who this person is. Out of 12 people, 11 were able to find those targets….”

“A lot of work we do draws on concepts that people are familiar with from video games,” said Jackson. “You interact with the iPhone through tilting movements, pinching movements, swiping movements. We wanted to take the motions that people are familiar with in terms of interacting with the smartphone and translate them into intuitive controls for the micro aerial vehicle.”

Engineers at Boeing, which is funding the program, see tremendous potential in the kind of user-friendly interface created by Jackson and the rest of the MIT team. “Training has been something that consumes a lot of effort in the past,” said Ramzy Boutros, manager of Boeing’s Research and Technology Human Factors Technology Group. “By making these vehicles significantly more autonomous, we’re able to reduce the expertise of the operator to reduce the training so that people who have a need to can operate in the field very quickly.”

This simplicity means that soldiers would not have to wait for skilled personnel or remote intelligence to alert them to what awaits on the other side of that hill. A fire chief could efficiently delegate his firefighters however he needed and select anyone to operate the helicopter while he continued to coordinate firefighting efforts.

Just how far can this technology take us?

“We’ve all seen the Jetsons,” said Professor Mary “Missy” Cummings, who oversees and advises the student-run project at MIT. “I suspect that one day, and the question is what day, we will all be flying around in effectively unmanned air vehicles.”

Boutros said that he is not aware of any Boeing-sponsored projects that would bring this technology to full-sized aircraft.

Cummings insists that the technology is there. “Our iPhone app can control a small plane but it can control a commercial-sized airliner as well. We’d have to make some regulatory inroads for it to happen, but the technical issues have fundamentally been solved.”

She predicts that in 5 to 10 years, unmanned aircraft will be transporting cargo. “That’s a foregone conclusion,” said Cummings. “It’s not going to happen in this country first, because we have so many regulatory problems. I suspect that Australia’s going to beat us to the punch, and very soon they’re going to start flying their packages overnight with no pilot on board.”

Cummings added that implementation of unmanned ground transport will not likely come as soon. “It’s actually harder to make a robotic car than a robotic plane. That takes a lot of people by surprise.”

She explained more external factors must be accounted for on the road than in the air. Pedestrians cross the street when they are not supposed to, weather changes the way the vehicle interacts with the road, and construction alters routes that must be navigated. Ground vehicles must be able to react to these changes very quickly. In the sky, adjustments are much more subtle and reaction times are more forgiving.

It looks like for now, the sky is the limit.

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