Critics of drone technology may say UAVs are for the birds but a research team at the University of Texas have a different avian perspective, gaining inspiration for their drone designs from our fine-feathered friends.
Led by engineering professor Maruthi R. Akella, the Austin-based team is teaming up with the city’s Rescue Robotics team — the first American municipality to garner federal authorization to use drones for search and rescue.
Not only will Akella’s nimble drones be used to locate disaster victims or find the best way to fight fires, but they may also have military applications.
“You’re flying through enemy terrain, jammed, and you need to do a search and kill mission,” Akella said in a recent interview with the Daily Texan. “There is nobody who is babysitting you from the outside — you are flying so fast and in such remote regions that there’s no opportunities for the vehicle to collect information, take pictures and send those pictures back to human operators.,” he added.
Akella says the inspiration for his quick, agile autonomous UAV designs were inspired by hummingbirds. “Hummingbirds are at the limit of what nature can do,” Akella told the Daily Texan. “They’re super-birds.”
In a UT-A press release Akella noted that the birds needed no GPS guidance – “they’re able to create their own navigation infrastructure using naturally endowed sensors.”
To improve their drone design’s autonomous guidance, Akella and his team created software that apes skills that birds use to fly — optical vision and learned experience via machine intelligence. Such breakthroughs enhance the drones’ level of autonomy.
“What I mean by autonomy is that we dial down the human involvement as much as the application requires,” Akella said. “That’s not to say that the human is never in the picture, but we want to minimize the babysitting part of what we need to do when it comes to flying UAVs.”
Akella’s design is capable of speeds up to 20 meters per second while carrying about a pound of payload for 20 minutes of flight time.
Allowing drones to envision and rapidly respond to a chaos-filled environment without human interference helps expand where they can function, and the efficiency of task execution, Akella said. The exteriors of most buildings block outdoor radio and GPS signals. And humans can be clumsy pilots, especially for fast vehicles operating within cluttered environments.
“The common theme of UAVs is that they are accessible, we can build them, and that we can train them,” Akella said. “But these capabilities can solve a very diverse class of problems.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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