The first open-air aerodrome for unmanned aerial vehicles at the University of California San Diego was a complete visual treat. A drone landed on a moving Roomba-like robot while being guided by arm gestures. Another streamed a live, high-definition, 360-degree video feed as it flew overhead.
This signals the dawn of a new era for drone research. Researchers from across campus, including computer scientists, structural, mechanical, aerospace, electrical and computer engineers and scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will all work under one roof in this laboratory for UAVs.
“We are bringing everyone together so that one plus one equals substantially more than two,” said Henrik I. Christensen, a professor of computer science at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the director of the campus’ Contextual Robotics Institute.
The opening of this aerodrome was catalyzed by two factors- new University of California regulations for governing the use of drones in residential areas and the demand from researchers on campus. The institute oversees this new drone testbed, which is located next to the UC San Diego Powell Structures Lab. The aerodrome consists of a 30-foot-tall mesh cage over a 2,500-square-foot outdoor area, and will be primarily be open to university research. Projects that could take flight in the new aerodrome include a wide range- from quadcopters built by undergraduate students to balloons designed for monitoring conditions inside hurricanes. The second phase will expand the testbed to an indoor 100-foot-tall area, connected to the outdoor testing cage.
Falko Kuester, a professor in the Department of Structural Engineering who leads the DroneLab at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego and his team are using drones to assess damage after natural disasters—both real and simulated. In one instance, the team developed imaging techniques using the drones which they then used to map full-scale buildings before, during and after earthquakes and fires. The drones acquired images and videos of a six-story building to document damage as a simulated earthquake and then a staged fire unfolded. using sophisticated algorithms, the imaging and videos were then used to create detailed three-dimensional models. The researchers could literally walk through, Star Trek-style, a Holodeck-type environment to inspect the structures for damage. “The ability to develop, test and refine drone-based imaging techniques is critical for our rapid response team,” said Kuester.
Another research team, led by professors Jorge Cortes and Sonia Martinez from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is working to develop algorithms that allow swarms of robots and drones to work together by allowing elements of the swarm to sense, estimate and plan to optimize deployment. These swarms can be used in search and rescue missions, environmental monitoring, or even for pickup and delivery in transportation.
The new UAV aerodrome is in part supported by funds from Northrup Grumman and Qualcomm. The research teams that will currently use the aerodrome are supported by the Army Research Laboratory, Army Corps of Engineers, National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA).
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