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Flying camera is an eye in the sky

posted 24 Feb 2011, 07:20 by Mpelembe   [ updated 24 Feb 2011, 07:22 ]

Swiss scientists have developed what they say is the world's first flying camera, which takes high-resolution photographs on command but requires no piloting skills.

SAINT-SULPICE, SWITZERLAND (FEBRUARY 23 ,2011) REUTERS - It weighs just under a pound (500 grams), and has wings. For the first time, according to its inventors, a still camera can fly and take aerial pictures autonomously.

Called the "swinglet cam", it's one of the smallest Unmanned Aerial vehicles (UAV) yet and requires no piloting skills to be flown.

While it looks like a toy, this small airplane made of expanded polypropylene (EPP) hides all the accessories that make it one the world's smallest UAVs: A GPS to give its position and carry its flight plan, an auto-pilot to control the flight attitude and a Pitot-tube to measure the flight speed and altitude.

The embedded digital camera - a small Canon will take aerial, 12 megapixel pictures based on pre-programmed commands.

"On the first look it looks like a toy, but then when you know what's inside you understand that it's a full UAV. For example, one thing which is specific is the Pitot-tube, which measures the flight speed and the altitude, there's the auto-pilot, inside with an initial measurement unit and the GPS to know the position where it is so you can follow the flight plan mainly, and in the middle, the heart of the UAV is the camera which takes high-resolution images", said Andrea Hildebrand, co-founder of Sensefly, the company that produced the product.

Sensefly was started in 2006 by a group of scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Polytechnique in Lausanne (EPFL), who had been studying the flight patterns of flies in an effort to reproduce them.

Their studies led to the creation of the "swinglet cam".

As it is switched on, the swinglet will automatically check its sensor calibration and determine its satellite position. The small plane is connected to the user's computer software via a modem and immediately appears on a Microsoft aerial map.

The user can then set a flight plan by introducing GPS points with simple clicks on the map. The plane then memorizes its base, or starting point, and will fly around the commanded track, which can also be modified during flight.

The swinglet can fly at an altitude of between 50 and 1,000 meters high. When the flight is commanded to finish, the swinglet returns to its base, switches off its motor and lands on its own.

"You could think of replacing the camera with other types of sensors, for example meteorologists who would like to know the temperature and humidity in the atmosphere, it's quite easy to replace the camera with sensors of that sort", Antoine Beyeler said.

For some 10,000 Swiss francs ($9,300) per unit, the swinglet can be used in a number of fields from geographic mapping to security, traffic monitoring, air quality monitoring or atmospheric sampling. Sensefly says any data sensors weighing under 150 grams can be integrated with the platform.