The age of the drones It is still in its infancy. And the new challenges that the sector faces are happening incessantly. One of the most novel objectives is to make these aerial devices capable of traveling autonomously. Drones with these characteristics could be useful to access sites difficult to reach for humans, for example in search and rescue operations or inspections of tunnels or deposits, explain different engineers. To test new technologies and prototypes, different teams of researchers are challenged periodically in international races. This month also Madrid was the scene of one of them.
"People fly drones, but fly them, that is, there is a pilot who is guiding them, "says Pascual Campoy, professor at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM). "The new challenge that the scientific community has is to turn them into autonomous robots", he contrasts. Campoy explains that one of the most important aspects is the self-localization capacity of the drone with respect to the environment. GPS technology facilitates this task in outdoor environments, he says. But in interiors "it is very difficult, because there is no GPS", adds this professor. To give autonomy to a drone, he argues, it is necessary to endow it with "the same sensors that humans have: the eyes, the vision".
José Martínez, from National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics of Mexico, adds to this discourse the need for drones of this type are not only autonomous, but also intelligent. "An autonomous drone can make a point route. But if he is intelligent, it means that he understands the outline and can solve problems, "he explains. The advantages of this capacity are multiple, as he maintains. "In any place where there is risk for people it is good to have autonomous drones," he says.
Martínez leads one of the seven teams aimed at the last edition of the Autonomous Drones Racing Competition, an annual race held this year at the beginning of October in Madrid, during the IROS fair. The competition allows groups specialized in aerial robotics to test new prototypes of autonomous drones. Among the organizers is Pascual Campoy. "We are challenging the scientific community to find out about a series of obstacles," explains the UPM professor.
"The new challenge that the scientific community has is to turn drones into autonomous robots"
The objective of each team is to make their prototype travel without human help a circuit composed of different doors. Each group is entitled to two 15-minute shifts to try to advance as much as possible. "Whoever is able to complete the whole circuit and whoever does it in less time is the winner," says Campoy.
Increasingly smart drones
One of the participating teams is the UPM research group coordinated by this teacher. A few minutes after the race begins, the adrenaline and nerves are evident in the faces of its members. "Drones can not be commanded. If it is done, there is an instantaneous disqualification, "explains Alejandro Rodríguez, a doctoral candidate at Madrid University and a member of the team. His companion Hriday Bavle shows the small prototype they have developed. "It's like a toy," he says.
The brain The autonomous drone is a computer installed on board the device, explains Bavle. Cameras and sensors connected to it detect and provide you in real time with location information. After receiving it, the integrated algorithms process that data and make decisions about its movements. The engineer assures that the reduced size is an advantage, because it allows to take more risks in the tests since "it does not cause much damage if it crashes".
Rodríguez adds that before the competition some parameters are incorporated into the on-board computer in relation to the environment in which the drone is going to move, for example light. But you can not anticipate details about the doors you are going to find, he says. "Once you train it, what you have to do is just launch some little programs and hit a button [para que se ponga en marcha]. And the drone is capable of making the entire circuit by itself, "says the doctoral candidate of the UPM.
A race still far from the final point
During the race, the human teams are solely responsible for monitoring if the drone falls due to an error during the processing of the information. Protective networks separate the circuit area from those intended for participants and the public. Two referees and two members of each group, protected with a helmet, follow the path of the device step by step to find out if it crosses the doors correctly and to try to catch it before it crashes to the ground if it gets too distracted. The amount of curious people gathered to attend the event grows with the passing of the minutes. "For the international community it is very attractive to know how we are progressing on these issues," says Campoy.
The driver of the competition is Hyungpil Moon, professor of Sung Kyun Kwan University (South Korea). "When I designed the circuit I imagined drones moving inside a damaged building and looking for trapped people," he explains. Through a microphone, the teacher calls the teams in order to put their drone to the test and keeps the audience animated as a sports commentator would. "Go, go, go", It prompts when the drones start up.
Moon says there are many challenges to overcome to improve the performance of autonomous drones. Among them, it indicates the importance of developing further the technologies of obstacle recognition and speed control. That is why he is already thinking about how to modify the circuit to renew the challenges for the participants of the next edition, which will probably be held in 2019 in Macao (China).
Of the seven teams this year, two come from South Korea (one is run by Moon himself). The others represent the Netherlands, the United States, Spain, Mexico and Switzerland. After four hours of racing, it is the Swiss team, made up of researchers from the University of Zurich, which wins the title of winner. One of the members, Elia Kaufmann, expresses the satisfaction of her group both for the triumph and because the provision of her prototype has "respected more or less" the previous expectations.
The team of UPM and José Martínez have not fared so well. But the Mexican researcher does not despair. From one edition to another, he says, the advances in the development of the autonomy of the drones are remarkable. In the next race everyone will have a new opportunity to demonstrate to what extent they have arrived.