…researchers led by Roland Brockers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have developed a MAV that uses a camera pointed at the ground to navigate and pick landing spots. It can even identify people and other objects. The system enables the drone to travel through terrain where human control and GPS are unavailable, such as a city street or inside a building.
A human operator needs to tell the drone only two things before it sets off: where it is and where its objective is. The craft figures out the rest for itself, using the camera and onboard software to build a 3D map of its surroundings. It can also avoid obstacles and detect surfaces above a predetermined height as possible landing zones. Once it selects a place to put down, it maps the site’s dimensions, moves overhead and lands.
In a laboratory experiment, a 50 centimetre by 50 centimetre quadrotor craft equipped with the navigation system was able to take off, travel through an obstacle-filled indoor space and land successfully on an elevated platform. Brockers’s team is now testing the system in larger, more complex environments.
…Vijay Kumar of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia says that autonomous navigation and landing capabilities are unprecedented in a drone of this size. “Typically the information required to locate a landing site and stabilise a vehicle over it is coming in at a 100 times a second,” he says. “No one else has been able to design a system so small with this kind of processing power.”