Drones took the world by storm last Christmas as prices plummeted to a few hundred euros for the fun devices which were top on the Christmas list for many.
But, far from being mere toys, it is hoped that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are called, will eventually be used for all kinds of applications which were once only features of science fiction.
A research team from Luxembourg University's Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) is among those driving these ideas to becoming a reality.
“10 years ago, nothing existed in the market. It existed only in military surveillance systems which were very expensive,” Luxembourg University's Dr Holger Voos told wort.lu/en, adding: “What we're dealing with is how to apply these UAVs for future commercial applications.”
From pizza delivery to hurricane hunting, the sky is the limit but Dr Voos' team is focusing on two distinct areas: uavs flying autonomously indoors and flying manipulation.
Dr Voos explained that thusfar all UAVs have been remote-controlled, often using GPS for outdoor navigation, connection with which is lost when they fly indoors.
“If you want to fly indoors, you've no GPS connection and you're losing the remote link and you can only fly if you've a drone which is flown in an autonomous way,” he explained.
Researchers at the university are therefore working on developing vision-based controls, using a camera or other sensor, information from which is processed onboard to guide the UAV indoors.
“In the Fukushima nuclear power plant incident, for example, if it went inside you would have no data connection to the outside. The drone must first navigate and avoid obstacles and collect data in a totally autonomous way. That's very interesting because it's very challenging on the one hand,” Dr Voos said.
The second application would enable drones to not only fly on their own but use limbs or manipulators, for example, to carry or pick things up. “Again, take Fukushima, if you go inside a destroyed power plant, with a UAV at the moment you can only see something or sense it. But if you want to close a valve, which is outside the reach of a ground-based robot, you could only do this with a manipulator on-board a UAV,” Dr Voos said.
While it comes with many challenges this idea, once fully developed, could lead to all kinds of uses,
such as the application of robotic manipulators in space. Here, for example removing debris is a big challenge and Dr Voos' team is in partnership with satellite manufacturers LuxSpace to develop an autonomous space robot which could do just that.
Barriers to progress
Sadly, real drones are still a long way from achieving the kinds of things they do in science-fiction. But the barriers are not necessarily just in innnovation, Dr Voos explains. Proving that they can move autonomously and safely is the main one.
“This is the next big challenge for outdoor flying and indoor flying, how to do this safely?” said Dr Voos.
Currently there are restrictions on flying uavs in public areas above a certain height and they must remain within sight of the person flying them. But once they are autonomous and used commercially, all sorts of questions surrounding risk management, regulation and insurance arise.
“Think of transport that would require a central post office that flies packages to Kirchberg for example. You're flying over a city with a lot of people. In order to get permission to do it you have to prove to these authorities that nothing can happen,” Dr Voos said.
Addressing these problems requires a multidisciplinary approach with legal experts as well as engineers and designers.
One product which may blaze the trail is the evolution of the self-driving car, which has huge industry backing and follows the same principle as autonomous UAVs.
“These automotive companies are working on it. Solutions obtained there will also be relevant for the UAV community and thus foster the development of commercial UAV applications,” Dr Voos said.
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