Under the clear June sky in Mesa, Ariz., a full-size helicopter successfully took off; flew at low altitude while avoiding obstacles; decided on a suitable landing site in unmapped terrain; and landed safely — all without the help of a pilot.
A team from Piasecki Aircraft and Carnegie Mellon developed the chopper's navigation/sensor system, making it ideal for rescuing soldiers in live-fire battle situations or taking victims out of contaminated areas.
"For anyone considering coming to CMU, this project is a testament to the fact that we do cutting edge research," said Sanjiv Singh, a research professor in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "This kind of project would be difficult to run at another university."
Singh has been at Carnegie Mellon since 1985. He helped to develop CMU's first outdoor robot, and spent 15 years working on various kinds of ground vehicles.
"Ground vehicles have a difficult time operating in natural terrain. Deciding what an obstacle is can be challenging," he said. "Ground robot problems can be compounded by vegetation and water. For example, it's difficult for a robot to decide if the vegetation is permeable even though there is enough support for a wheel."
Water is even more difficult for a robot to navigate through, he noted.
"When we are driving, we are used to reading the cues around the terrain to determine how deep water is, but it's hard for a robot to determine that the water is only a few inches deep and so it is ok to go through it," he explained. "When you go from ground to air, the problems get a little easier because it's not necessary to make such fine distinctions and because it's possible to go over obstacles instead of simply around them. While experiments with air vehicles are much more difficult, there's a sense of freedom."
He added, "We're having a lot of fun. It is kind of a joy working with large toys. There's the serious intellectual side of how to design these things, and then there's the fun side of seeing this become something new, something that hasn't been done before. It's very refreshing and invigorating."
Singh is also working on developing a small aerial vehicle to map out rivers that are difficult to map from satellite. He's excited about the applications these technologies may have in the field.
"There's a lot that can be done here. We didn't actually see what was coming until we managed to have some success in the area and realized what we can do with it," he said. "Afghanistan, that's one option. With an autonomous helicopter, you might be able to transport a wounded soldier with less risk by going up and over, avoiding IEDs."
He added, "We were intrinsically responsible for this technology, and that's unusual. It makes me feel a lot of things are possible here that are not possible anywhere else."