New system could provide detailed images — even of soft tissue — from a lightweight, portable device.
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's official! The MIT/Draper Autonomous Helicopter Project, which produced the Draper Small Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (DSAAV), is now the official MIT Aerial Robotics Club, complete with faculty advisor, veteran team members, an appetite for new talent and a will to win. Again.
In 1996, the DSAAV, a high-end radio-controlled helicopter that was instrumented and computerized to fly autonomously, won first place in the sixth annual International Aerial Robotics Contest. This year, the first in which the project was entirely student-run, the helicopter, now known as Robocopter, relied on the winning Draper design. It came in second to Carnegie-Mellon University.
Similar to MIT's celebrated Design 2.70 contest, the aerial robotics contest requires each of the competing colleges to build an autonomous flying machine that can (a) locate "toxic barrels" in a landscape and (b) pick up an orange disc, representing a toxic object. The contest is held at Disney World's Epcot Center in Florida.
Most of the entries in this year's contest looked like small helicopters -- fish-like shapes that behaved somewhat like bait for bigger creatures as they wiggled temptingly in mid-air. A red balloon and a wringer-washer design also competed.
"We took off and crashed. Then the tail boom cracked and we had to cut it off," said a rueful Vlad Gavrilets, a graduate student in aeronatuics and astronautics, as he watched a video tape of the July attempt. An insistent buzzing, suggestive of a chain saw at work on the palm trees nearby, provided the soundtrack for the team's memories.
"The crash during the competition did not kill us, though. We repaired the 'copter and it flew," Mr. Gavrilets said. "We were able to demonstrate remotely controlled disc pick-up, the communication/telemetry system, the navigation system and tracking. Our control system was not finished by then, and we did not fly autonomously. Carnegie-Mellon's performance was far better than ours, so they took first place," added Mr. Gavrilets.
Robocopter was "extremely loaded," said Scott Rasmussen, also a graduate student in aero/astro. At 25 pounds, it couldn't fly. To trim its weight, the team drilled holes in all the metal parts and removed the washers. At 22.5 pounds, the chopper flew -- briefly.
Still, Mr. Rasmussen called it an "exciting project. Aerial robotics is a systems integration issue -- how can we get all the parts working together in a very complicated system that must adhere to stringent safety rules? A land-based robot can simply stop and no one gets in trouble. An aerial robot gets into dramatic trouble. It can crash and burn."
The ultimate potential uses for autonomous aerial vehicles keep club members inspired and intrigued. Mr. Rasmussen foresees Robocopter's offspring being used in his native Australia for continual monitoring of coastlines, for bush fire fighting, and for search-and-rescue missions. Its applications also include civilian and military surveillance; battlefield imaging, urban reconnaisance, and farmland imaging, said team members.
Another application for UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technology is airline safety. Speaking of airline pilots, Mr. Rasmussen noted, "They have to rely on instrumentation and automation to build a view of the world they can't see as pilots. We're building a view of the world as we don't see it."
Faculty advisor Professor Eric Feron said, "The project provides a benchmark of what's possible with autonomous vehicles; it reveals research challenges through the study of this complicated system. This system has more computer power on board than many jetliners. And remember -- no one has yet fully completed all the tasks set out by the Epcot contest."
1998 WISH LIST
The team's plans for victory in 1998 begin with fundraising this fall. (Last fall's fundraising coup, a donation from Burger King, was accomplished by Sergei Krupenin, a senior in physics; the tail boom bore the Burger King decal.) Also, "we need a helicopter. Make that two helicopters," said Mr. Rasmussen with a laugh.
Other things on the Aerial Robotics Club wish list include "money, electrical engineers, programmers, people interested in simulation, device-driver systems-level people in EECS, someone in mechanical engineering, a controls engineer -- it's a good test bed for different control systems -- and people interested in mission planning and artificial intelligence," team members said.
The main support for robocopter came from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Other sponsors were Draper Lab, Newton Research Laboratories, Novatel, Burger King/MIT Dining, Rockwell, GEC-Marconi and Bergen Helicopters.
In addition to those mentioned above, this year's MIT Aerial Robotics Team included graduate students A. Miguel Leon and Jake Lopata and sophomore Jacob Markish, all of aero/astro; graduate student Jeremy Brown and sophomore Kyrilian Dyer, both of EECS; and safety pilot Alex Lob, owner of Alex's Hobby Works in Watertown. The entire team has re-upped for the club this year.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 10, 1997.