An autonomous quadcopter that can navigate through a room using just the power of a smartphone has been designed in Austria.
The drone assembled by the Virtual-Reality-Team at Vienna University of Technology does not need any human intervention to carry out its tasks and is not assisted by any external computer. All the necessary computing power is on board with the image processing done by a standard smartphone.
Quadcopters have become a popular toy for academic research as the small aircraft, powered by four electrical engines, are perfect for testing advanced feedback control systems, which make them fly steadily and safely.
Usually, quadcopters are steered by humans or they send their data to a powerful earthbound computer, which then returns the necessary control signals, but the Vienna team’s quadcopter does not need any external input.
“Proceeding towards robotics and mounting a camera onto a quadcopter was just the logical next step for us”, said Hannes Kaufmann, of the university’s Faculty of Informatics.
The smartphone’s camera provides the visual data and its processor acts as the control centre for the system, while the quadcopter’s intelligence, which allows it to navigate, was coded in a smartphone-app. In addition, a micro controller adjusts the rotor speed, so that the quadcopter flies as steadily as possible.
The quadcopter cannot make any use of GPS data meaning it has to rely entirely on visual data and has been designed to work indoors – a major challenge as close to walls or corners, aerodynamics can be much more tricky than in open space.
To test the aircraft’s navigational capabilities the team attached visual codes to the floor similar to QR-codes. Hovering above these codes, the quadcopter recognizes them, obtains information and creates a map of its environment.
Once it has created a virtual map of the codes on the floor, it can head for a specific known location or go on exploring areas it has not yet visited.
“In the future, the quadcopter should also be able to do without these codes. Instead, we want it to use naturally occurring reference points, which can be obtained from the camera data and also from depth sensors such as the MS Kinect”, said Annette Mossel, chief engineer of the quadcopter project.
There are many possible applications for an autonomous quadcopter; firemen could send it into a burning building and have it transmit a 3D picture from inside before they enter the building themselves or miniature quadcopters could guide people to the right place in large, labyrinthine buildings.
Due to its low price, the smartphone-quadcopter could also be used in less wealthy regions of the world – for instance to monitor illegal forest clearance without having to use expensive helicopters.
And ignoring the many months of work spent designing the electronics and developing the computer programs, the components of the quadcopter cost less than a thousand Euros.