18 June 1998

Autonomous Now! Robot Helicopters Take To The Skies

Colonel Kilgore would have loved this. A remarkable robotic helicopter that can take off and land autonomously, track multiple objects, discriminate colours and build aerial maps will help NASA scientists fathom the secrets of Mars. In an exploration of a barren meteorite impact crater on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, the robot will buzz its way around geologic features that bear an uncanny resemblance to the surface of the Red Planet.

"An unmanned vision-based helicopter will open up views of this exploration that are not easily available," says Takeo Kanade, director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon where the spunky chopper was developed. "This project can also open up a broad range of applications for the helicopter, including rescue, mapping, remote filming and inspection."

Indeed, the mission at Haughton Impact Crater on Devon Island is as much a test of the robot's futuristic features as it is a romp into Mars' wetter and warmer past.

The craft weighs a mere 160 pounds, yet boasts a battery of powerful gadgetry, including an on-board navigation computer, laser rangefinder and video capture hardware. It can, say its creators, perform in 45 mile-per-hour gusts of wind and sense its own position in the field.

Besides surveillance and aerial mapping, the scientists anticipate a flying robot that will be able to carry out autonomous search and rescue, aid law enforcement and prove a whiz at cinematography. But can it play Wagner?

Pic Courtesy Carnegie Mellon

GoGo Further - Autonomous Helicopter Project