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Up Close and Personal with the Predator UAV June 23, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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I’ve said several times over that military robots often get a bad rep, when in fact, they are helping save time, effort and ultimately, lives.

Consider Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): these robots can serve as the military eyes and ears in the sky, helping provide strategic surveillance information about identified and possible threats. They can fly undetected at extreme heights and see things humans cannot, using a variety of sensors like thermal cameras to detect things unseen to the naked eye.

These drones aren’t just spying on enemy territory. They can help protect U.S. borders as well. The Predator drone, for instance, is now being commissioned by the U.S. Customs Border Patrol to provide remote surveillance of the Texas border.

This video provides an excellent description of how these UAVs actually work. I was most impressed with the amount of redundancy these remotely-operated vehicles must have. Take a look and learn:

A recent news update reports that the border drone flights have been temporarily suspended due to a communications fault experienced during a recent test flight. It just goes to show how extremely cautious we must be when sending out unmanned vehicles to wander around in our atmosphere.

More information about robotic border patrol here.

See how NI technologies are also used on-board unmanned aerial vehicles like the Global Hawk.

Its a bird, its a plane, its a UAV February 17, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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In a face-off between UAV vs. UGV vs. UMV, i.e. aerial vs. ground vs. maritime robot, who would win? If we go by shear volume of what’s currently deployed in action, unmanned aerial vehicles take the cake. I recently calculated that DoD spending on research and development for UAVs is 2.5-times its investment in UGV-related R&D, and 15-times its investment in UMVs. (source: FY2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: President’s Budget for Unmanned Systems).

With more eyes in the skies, UAV developers have seen some recent success. For instance, the US Marine Corps recently completed its first successful demonstration of its new robocopter, a helicopter that was gutted and retrofitted to become a UAV. What’s particularly impressive is that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill unmanned vehicle; there’s no hands on control necessary. A flight operator specifies the flight path and then the helicopter autonomously navigates itself to its destination. And the fact that its a helicopter helps address difficulties encountered when delivering supplies or aid to soldiers in particularly rugged terrain. This Popular Science article has more info on the application.

Another recent success: a UAV in the UK has made the first flying drone arrest. Suspects of a stolen vehicle had been evading police during chase thanks to a thick heavy fog. So police called in the help of a UAV and utilized its thermal imaging to identify the body heat and locate the hiding suspects in a nearby ditch. More info here.

Kind of creepy but still very cool.

How to Build a Quad Rotor UAV October 6, 2009

Posted by emiliekopp in code, labview robot projects.
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Blog Spotlight: Dr. Ben Black, a Systems Engineer at National Instruments, is documenting his trials and tribulations in his blog as he builds an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), using a SingleBoardRIO (2M gate FPGA+400MHz PowerPC processor), four brushless motors, some serious controls theory and lots of gorilla glue.

I particularly appreciate his attention to the details, stepping through elements of UAV design that are often taken for granted, like choosing reference frames, when you should use PID control, and the genius that is xkcd.

Like most roboticists, throughout the design process, he has to wear many hats. I think Ben put it best:

I think that the true interdisciplinary nature of the problems really makes the field interesting.  A roboticist has to have at minimum a working knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science / engineering and controls engineering.  My background is from the world of mechanical engineering (with a little dabbling in bio-mechanics), but I end up building circuits  and writing tons of code.  I’ve had to pick up / stumble through the electrical and computer science knowledge as I go along, and I know just enough to make me dangerous (I probably don’t always practice safe electrons…sometimes I let the magic smoke out of the circuits…and I definitely couldn’t write a bubble sort algorithm to save my life).

My point in this soap-box rant is that in the world of robotics it’s good to have a specialty, but to really put together a working system you also need to be a bit of a generalist.

For anyone even considering building a UAV (or just likes to read about cool robotics projects), I suggest you check it out. He shares his .m-files, LabVIEW code, and more. Thanks Ben.