New Software Makes Developing Unconventional Drone Designs Easier

Thanks to new regulations brought in this fall by the FAA, facilitating drone flight for customers and companies alike, interest in drones themselves seems set to continue increasing. There is currently a rush to bring a breadth of diverse drone types to market across the world. But with some of these experiencing hiccups along way, and the current limitations on colors and designs – will everyone really be able to find a drone they feel suits them to a tee?

The quick answer to that question is probably ‘yes’. Researchers at MIT have developed a new system which will allow users to come up with their own designs for drones, which they will then be able to run through simulations, and – if they are satisfied – send them off to be built.

The project has been developed at the university’s Computer Science And Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL for short. It will allow consumers control over their drones’ color, size, shape and structure from an esthetic point of view. Alternatively, customers can start with the specifications they require of their custom drones, such as their maximum payload, flight time, battery usage and so on.

In order to demonstrate the capabilities of the new system, researchers came up with a number of unusual drone designs. Prominent among these were the first ‘pentacopter’ – with five rotors, and a ‘bunnycopter’, featuring a variety of differently sized rotors in different positions.

According to a report on MIT’s news site, Prof. Wojciech Matusik – responsible for the project’s oversight in the CSAIL Computational Fabrication Group – said that the system breaks with the one-size-fits-all approach, and that it will allow people to make drones for particular purposes more easily.

It doesn’t stop there, either. If users need to use specific propellers, rotors or rods, the interface can deal with that, too. Whatever the specifics requirements are, the interface will ensure that the final design and build will be able to take off, hover and land without any problems. All of which represents a tremendous achievement by the researchers at CSAIL, bearing in mind the complexities involved in finding the right balance between weight, shape and control.

MIT PhD student, Tao Du, who authored a paper about the new system, said that “irregularly-shaped drones are very difficult to stabilize, which means that they require establishing very complex control parameters.”

PhD student Tao Du helps one of the team’s multicopters take off (Photo by Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL).

Du’s paper was co-written with Matusik – his professor – along with doctorate student Adriana Schultz, postdoc Bo Zhu and Assistant Professor Bernd Bickel of IST Austria. It is due to be presented in the coming week, in Macao, host to this year’s SIGGRAPH Asia conference.

All of this points to a huge imminent shakeup of the market, which currently only provides a small and limited number of options to consumers. Most drones on the market are built with upward-facing propellers and an even number of rotors. This rigidness of design can cause difficulties when adapting drones to particular usages. A propeller may obscure part of a camera view. By removing it, the camera becomes more effective. Alternatively, the space may be used for extra battery power, or to help the drone carry irregularly-shaped payloads. CSAILs system removes the need for human expertise, and therefore makes it easier for specialist drones to be born.

Du went on to say that “developing multicopters like these that are actually flyable involves a lot of trial-and-error, tweaking the balance between all the propellers and rotors. It would be more or less impossible for an amateur user, especially one without any computer-science background.”

CSAIL’s project is supported by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research program, the NSF and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Andrew Maxwell

Andrew is a former journalist who now works as a freelance writer specializing in tech and gadgets. He currently resides in Thailand.

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