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Lost on MIT campus? Follow the drone

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  September 13, 2013 12:09 PM

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Researchers at MIT have invented a drone that can guide visitors -- even lost Harvard students -- around MIT’s maze-like campus.

The autonomous flying quadcopter and personal tour guide, still in the development phase, can be beckoned and communicated with through a specially made smartphone app.

“Rather than the visitor diverting their attention to a map, the autonomous guide provides an intuitive navigational system of simply ‘following,’” said Chris Green, who led MIT Senseable City Lab’s “SkyCall” project alongside Carlo Ratti, the lab's director, and Yaniv Jacob Turgeman.

The quadcopters use onboard autopilot, GPS, sonar sensing, and Wi-Fi connectivity to navigate, the researchers said via e-mail. The first successful launch came last month and the project has since been demoed to a handful of students around “one of mankind’s most difficult and disorientating labyrinths: MIT campus.”

The working prototype is not publicly available, yet, in part because “current FAA regulations don't allow this sort of thing,” Green, the project's leader, said.

But, the group is working with city officials in Boston to get permission to fly drones for future projects.

The researchers said SkyCall is the first phase of a program that is exploring “novel, positive” uses within urban settings for unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, technology.

“Our imaginations of flying sentient vehicles are filled with dystopian notions of surveillance and control, but this technology should be tasked with optimism,” Turgeman, head of research and development, said by email.

“The urban UAV will guide us in disorienting situations, support search and rescue efforts, track environmental problems, and even act as digital insects re-introducing natural biodiversity to our man-made environments,” he added.

Many MIT visitors have a tough time getting around the campus. That problem inspired the project, as well as a video posted to YouTube that demonstrates the technology while also poking fun by dressing the confused-looking main character in a bowtie, Harvard lanyard and pin, or as “someone you would typically expect to be lost within MIT.”

Work on SkyCall began in May.

“We've had about four different prototypes, but during development one flew over the Walker building into the Charles River, and another flew about 60 feet straight up in the air and shut down,” wrote Green. “The team is still mourning the loss, research and development can be brutal, we'd rather not talk about it.”

The parts for each quadcopter cost about $500. But the engineering to create them is “priceless,” Green said.

The drones “can efficiently locate, communicate with, and guide visitors around MIT campus, specifically along predetermined routes or towards user-determined destinations,” the researchers said.

Like any good tour guide, they can also take pictures.

But, the devices need some help when guiding. Along with requests that need to be sent via the smartphone app, users also must help the devices get past some basic obstacles.

“Doors, for example, require an understanding from the UAV, and an action from the user, and are a great example of the human-machine interaction that makes this successful,” Green said.

He said the group is continuing to develop “more sophisticated solutions” to dealing with certain issues – like the chance that airborne objects or animals could collide with a quadcopter.

So far, no birds have been harmed, Green said.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@gmail.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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