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How do drones sense the world?

A demonstration of sensing using drones.
So, typically, you’ll have a sensor setup, where you’ll have some way of sensing the world. That’s then passed into an autopilot. That autopilot takes that information and builds the best picture of the world that it can. It will be using information, for example, from a magnetometer to give a heading, or from a GPS unit to give you a global position, or from accelerometers to give you acceleration in various different directions. It takes all that information and puts it together to give a rough picture of how the aircraft is moving at that time. That means you can then take decisions based on how you want to control the aircraft based on that information. This is our massive octocopter aircraft.
All the flying weight, at the moment, of this is around about 10 kilogrammes, but it will actually fly up to about 15 kilos. So it can carry a really heavy payload. It started life as a standard octocopter. It’s got an autopilot system on here that lets you fly it around using one of these controllers, just flying it around manually, like most people would do. But we’ve actually decided that it’s quite difficult to do that. So what we’ve done is we’ve added a laser scanner onto the front of it, and then actually attached some additional computers onto the bottom. And this lets us do some really advanced control systems with it.
Meaning that instead of just flying it around manually, so instead of just having to fly up near a wall with manual control - which, when you’re standing quite far away, can be very difficult and challenging to do - the laser actually constantly tells the autopilot how close it is to the wall, and lets the autopilot automatically choose to stay a fixed distance from the wall. So it makes the pilot workload really, really low in comparison to what it would otherwise be, and allows you to use systems like we have on the front here - which is a little camera system - to actually then go up and inspect things really closely without risking the aircraft.
And this is particularly useful if you’re flying outdoors in windy conditions and all sorts of things like that. There’s already a lot of people who are using these drones for doing things like structural inspection. So, flying it really close into buildings and getting really good zoomed in views, because it’s much safer and much easier and more convenient to do it with a drone than, for example, put up a lot of scaffolding or have people abseil down a bridge or something like that.
But the people flying those drones can find it quite hard work, because in windy conditions and in that sort of environment, it can be really difficult to fly these things close in to get the sort of images that the surveyor then needs to actually make decisions about the structural integrity of the structure. So, by adding these additional sensors and additional algorithms and routines, it allows us to use these systems much more easily, and also in much more adverse weather conditions, where a human pilot simply wouldn’t be good enough. Because a human pilot has to watch the aircraft and wait for it to move from a gust of wind or whatever, and then see that and then respond and then react.
Whereas, by using this system, before the pilot’s even noticed something’s gone wrong, the aircraft has already corrected and stopped the aircraft getting too close to the structure.

In this video, we join Dr Jonathan Aitken and Dr Owen McAree in their Sheffield Airport hangar to find out how they have designed an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – more commonly known as a drone – to be able to sense its environment.

They’ll explain some of the different kinds of sensors that have been fitted to the drone so that it can build a picture of its surroundings and explore some of the ways this could be useful in the real world.


Can you think of any other useful applications for this type of drone?
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