Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Win brings robotic-aircraft team a step closer to 'mission impossible'

The Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (MAAV) student team may not have accomplished "mission impossible" with its miniature, robotic four-propeller helicopter, but it did bring home the gold.


The Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles Team's unmanned quadrotor took first place in 2012 International Robotics Competition, and was one of only two teams to complete and map the course. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles team)

Watch a video of the MAAV team at work and the aircraft in action.

In a field of more than 20 competitors, the U-M student team won first place at the 2012 International Robotics Competition, beating schools such as Georgia Tech and Embry-Riddle with its custom-built quadrotor. The team, which was founded in 2009, was one of only two to successfully maneuver and map the set course with its unmanned aerial vehicle.

But like others before it, the team was unable to complete the entire challenge, which is designed to be unattainable. In fact, since the competition's inception 22 years ago only five missions have been successfully completed, meaning that on average it takes four and a half years to finish each one.

"The reason the competition is so difficult is simply because it is designed to be," said aerospace engineering graduate student Tom Brady. "The panel of judges looks at the state of the art in aerial robotics technology and defines a mission around something that is 'impossible' with current technology."

The competition is now on its sixth mission, and teams have been attempting to finish it since 2010. The challenge requires an aerial vehicle to navigate completely autonomously through the window of a building, following wall signs written in Arabic that lead it to a flash drive on a table. The robot then is supposed to retrieve the drive, replace it with a decoy and exit the building.

"The mission-specific objective of seeing the flash drive, picking it up and putting down a decoy requires extreme dexterity and precision usually impossible for a flying vehicle," said hardware team lead and computer science graduate student Sam DeBruin. "We need to navigate in extremely tight spaces and this adds to the complexity."

This year's team accomplished its goal, which was to navigate through and map the building successfully. The team's quadrotor (which is as yet un-named) uses LIDAR laser sensors, an inertial measurement unit and fully customized proprietary control software. In addition, the team built the vehicle from scratch, while many other competitors purchase a vehicle ready for flight.

Current technology for unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes known as drones, doesn't allow for autonomous indoor flight without a human controlling the vehicle remotely.

"I believe that there is so much potential in the civilian sector for small unmanned aerial vehicles; however, the technology needs to improve before we can efficiently utilize them," said aerospace engineering undergrad student and manufacturing team lead Joe Potter. "That is what we are attempting to do; develop a system not only capable of completing this mission but also advance the technology required for real world applications."

Despite the team's success, there were hiccups along the way, including an occasion when the vehicle failed due to an "overzealous magnetic retrieval mechanism that attached itself to a chair." The team blogged during the competition that "the quadrotor lost its fight with the chair when it crashed into a wall, causing minor damage to itself. The chair was unharmed."

"There are, of course, certain mishaps that can happen when one doesn't sleep for 60-70 hours," said Brady, who jokingly added, "Still, I don't consider this a failure as it was quite entertaining."