A team of six Rice University electrical and computer engineering students have developed the hardware and software necessary to coordinate sensor-carrying drones. They have used relatively inexpensive drone components as the platform for demonstrating their software capability.
“The system is designed to be application-agnostic in the sense that you can use our APIs and libraries to build any kind of autonomous solution that you want,” said team member Kevin Lin. “Based on what we’ve seen at the Olympics and other presentational shows, you could totally use our software to build something like that.”
“It’s easy for them to communicate in a peer-to-peer way, but all the underlying complexities of how the communication works are abstracted out to the programmer,” Lin said. “We provide really nice APIs to make it fairly painless for a client to get them to talk to each other.”
One of the most interesting experiments involved LIDAR, which uses a pulsed laser to locate surrounding objects. “We mounted a spinning LIDAR on one of the drones,” Brooks said. “That gives us a planar cross section of the environment.” Raising and lowering the drone – and thus, the horizontal plane – allowed them to capture slices of the immediate environment and build a 3-D map. During testing in the university’s engineering quad, a LIDAR-equipped drone detected and mapped walls, arches and even trees.
“The application-agnostic nature of it makes it really easy to staple on whatever sensor you like and write some really simple mission code,” he said. “Nobody sees the next Hurricane Harvey coming more than a few weeks out. It’s important to have the barrier entry for constructing something like this be really low.”