Teaching Drones to Stay on Target

January 6, 2016

Many of us would be lost without Google Maps to help us navigate to our destinations. And, many of us have experienced the frustration when low signal strength prevents us from knowing where we are or where we are going. As humans, we have options. We can stop and ask for directions or use our judgment to keep going until we locate a stronger signal.

But what about drones?

As we move toward living in a world where drones are used for everything from delivering packages to monitoring the health of a remote forested area, there needs to be a way to ensure that drones, regardless of whether they can access a signal, can find their way.

This is the basis for the work being conducted by Professor Amit Sanyal in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. His research explores how drones can operate in a GPS denied environment and under real life conditions such as wind and rain.

In addition to Sanyal’s lab, Millennium Engineering has provided $40,000 to support the building of a test facility at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. This 30 foot by 40 foot walled-in area will allow Sanyal to test different scenarios. Rather than programming a route for the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), Sanyal and his team will provide them with waypoints to reach and program the vehicles to navigate around obstacles and through changing conditions to a destination.

The facility is big enough to test single UAVs, teams of UAVs, and possibly even ground vehicles that communicate with UAVs.

“Unmanned systems are going to have a very important role to play in society,” said Sanyal. “They will impact multiple facets of life from items like package delivery to monitoring of civilian infrastructure like oil pipelines, bridges, and dams. Unmanned systems can also operate in environments that are too hazardous for direct human involvement. For example, unmanned underwater robots can navigate through pipes in a nuclear power plant. Therefore it will be beneficial if unmanned systems like UAVs are utilized for the betterment of society in collaboration with humans and manned systems. Ultimately, I think UAVs, and unmanned systems in general, will aid us in enhancing the quality of life.”

Professor Sanyal’s master’s degree is from Texas A&M University and his Ph.D. is from the University of Michigan, both in aerospace engineering. In addition, he has a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan. Prior to joining the College he was a faculty member at New Mexico State University.