Students Develop a Drone Based Platform for Sophisticated Sensing Applications

Six electrical and computer engineering students from Rice University have developed a way for sensor-carrying drones to evaluate local atmospheric conditions, measure electronic signals such as Wi-Fi, map areas in three dimensions and more.

The team from Rice University, calls itself Skynet. They spent weeks building and testing drones customized to carry sensors, and then wrote massive amounts of code to run them. They developed APIs, or application programming interfaces, which will let users customize the drones to meet their own sensing requirements. The system is designed to be application-agnostic in the sense that any APIs and libraries can be used to build any kind of autonomous solution needed. For example, one could use this solution to build drone solutions for the Olympics and other presentational shows. The team of electrical and computer engineering majors, developed the platform as more of a generic tool that can be programmed to carry out a wide range of sensing tasks on their own.

They spent the entire school year writing more than 10,000 lines of code and testing one drone and then multiple drones. Each drone is equipped with a Wi-Fi dongle that allows them to form a mesh network that enables communication across long distances without requiring a central access point. They're also equipped to avoid obstacles and track altitude through onboard LIDAR (light detection and ranging) instruments. Each drone uses a Raspberry Pi as its central processor, and most can lift between 1 and 2 kilograms.

All those capabilities helped the team test several applications, including its primary goal of sensing signal strength from a stationary Wi-Fi hot spot in the middle of a Rice athletic field. That was useful because it showcased two drones coordinating and sharing their data. They just looped through the field and took measurements at all the points programmed. It was fed into an algorithm that localized the hotspot.

One of the most interesting experiments involved LIDAR, which uses a pulsed laser to locate surrounding objects. The team mounted a spinning LIDAR on one of the drones. That gave them 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. Sometimes, the team admitted, the drones crash. But the nature of kit-based drones is that the parts are easy to acquire and the fliers have become easier to repair as the team has gained experience. The application-agnostic nature of the system makes it really easy to staple on whatever sensors desired and write some really simple mission code.

The team's adviser is Edward Knightly, a professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of computer science. The Bob and Lori Herlin Endowment for Engineering Design sponsored the students.

Click here to learn more about the team.