A group of Austrian students have designed a quadcopter which flies autonomously using only the computing power of a smartphone. The researchers say the drone could one day be used for search and rescue scenarios or fighting fires without putting humans in harm's way.
Students at the Vienna University of Technology designed the small quadcopter - a type of helicopter with four rotors - that can fly indoors, avoid obstacles, and map the surrounding space, all by using a standardsmartphone.
The research team essentially assembled the vehicle around the capabilities of a smartphone, using its camera to provide visual data taken from markers on the floor, and employing its processor as the quadcopter's control centre. All computations are performed directly on the smartphone and the quadcopter receives no signals from either remote control or external computer.
The software which allows the quadcopter to navigate its surroundings was programmed into a smartphone app, and a micro controller was added to adjust the rotor speed, making it fly as steadily as possible.
"We developed from scratch the whole software for the autonomous flight. And we used a framework to be able to detect the markers, the pattern on the ground," research assistant Annette Mossel said.
Next, the researchers tested the quadcopter's navigational capabilities by attaching visual codes to the surface above the quadcopter, which was left to hover.
By flying above the codes, which resemble visual QR-codes, the aircraft can recognise them and create a virtual map of its immediate environment.
"What the quadcopter is doing, is that it flies over a certain area, and it learns that area and the markers that you can see," according to research team leader Hannes Kaufmann.
The entire process is powered by smartphone's built-in computer system.
"The exploration, the navigation, and the mapping, as well as the localisation, is all done on the smart phone," Mossel said.
Although there are other quadcopters in the market, researchers say this is the first that can fly autonomously to map its surrounding, and can do that using readily accessible technology in the form of a standard consumersmartphone.
Kaufmann said that possible applications of their systems are huge, especially in firefighting or search-and-rescue situations.
"One possible practical application would be in the case of a fire-fighting scenario, for instance. The group leader can send in one quadcopter or multiple quadcopters, and they fly through the building, scan the building, and build a 3D map of this building. And automatically the map and the structure of the building is known outside," Kaufmann said.
Future plans include installing a 3D camera, allowing the quadcopter to create three-dimensional virtual mappings of indoor spaces, or even small rooms or apartments.