Texas Aerial Robotics wins second place with self-flying drones

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Eric Johnson

Creating a robot that can make decisions and navigate its environment isn’t easy. Students from Texas Aerial Robotics, a student organization at UT, did just that by creating a drone capable of intelligent decision making, which won second place in the domestic venue on Aug. 1 at the International Aerial Robotics Competition in Atlanta, Georgia.

Texas Aerial Robotics focuses on autonomous quadcopters, which are self-flying helicopters with four spinning motors. The drone they made for the competition has autonomy similar to how Tesla’s autopilot is, said Eric Johnson, a senior aerospace engineering major and co-founder of the organization.

The robotics competition is 27 years old and has a mission every year, with the mission staying the same year to year until someone beats it, at which point it changes. Mission 7, the most recent one, has been ongoing since 2013 and was only beat at this year’s competition.

According to the International Aerial Robotics Competition, the purpose of the competition is to move aerial robots forward by creating missions that are considered impossible to solve at the time of their proposal. Mission 7 contained three main challenges: intelligent decision making, navigation without GPS and obstacle avoidance. To solve them, Texas Aerial Robotics used technology such as laser detection, computer vision and 3D simulators.

The mission included a 20x20 meter grid, in which there were many Roombas, the vacuum cleaning robots. Teams were tasked with autonomously herding all the Roombas onto one side of the grid. The Roombas were programmed to rotate randomly every five seconds, and the drone had to use computer vision to calculate their trajectories.

“We used machine learning to train the computer to know what Roombas are,” Johnson said. “That’s how autonomous cars like Teslas know what cars are and what people are.”

The international competition had two venues, one in Atlanta and one in Beijing, with 30 teams at each venue. Six teams in China and five teams in the U.S. were able to pass the qualifying rounds. The competition in the Atlanta venue included teams from countries around the world, such as Norway and India.

“We won second place at the American venue, and we are really satisfied with our performance because we only started this mission two years ago, and some of the teams have been doing it for four years,” Johnson said.

The team is funded by corporate donors, especially since robotics technology is expensive, Johnson said. The donors included Lockheed Martin, Southwest Research Institute, General Dynamics Mission System and Orbital ATK.

“All this technology is really new, up-and-coming and high-tech, so a lot of companies want to see us succeed and get our knowledge when we graduate,” Johnson said.

Umer Salman, a junior electrical and computer engineering major and co-founder of the organization, said that the organization is looking forward to the next challenge.

“Now that the mission has been completed, the group is now working on the new mission, which involves human voice and hand gesture recognition by a drone,” Salman said.