A Smartphone Is the Brain for This Autonomous Quadcopter

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Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

At CES 2015, we stopped by the Qualcomm booth to check out a collaborative project with University of Pennsylvania researchers led by Vijay Kumar: it’s a quadrotor that uses a smartphone for a brain for autonomous flight, using only on-board hardware and vision algorithms, no GPS. Impressive.

Just to be clear on this, the only thing that the quadrotor has in terms of electronics is a motor controller and a battery. All of the clever stuff is being handled entirely by the phone, which is just a stock Android smartphone with a Qualcomm Snapdragon inside. In other words, this is not a special device (like Google’s Project Tango phone, which the UPenn researchers used in a demo last year); it’s something that you can pick up for yourself, and the UPenn guys only half jokingly offered to install their app on my phone and let it fly the robot.

This is a fantastic example of just how far smartphones have come: they’re certainly powerful computers, but it’s the integrated sensing that comes standard in almost all of them (things like gyros, accelerometers, IMUs, and high resolution cameras) that makes them ideal for low-cost brains for robots. What’s unique about the CES demo is that it’s the first time that a sophisticated platform like this (vision-based real-time autonomous navigation of a flying robot is pretty darn sophisticated) has been controlled by a very basic consumer device.

So, what’s next? Vijay Kumar tells us where they’re headed:

“What we’d like to do is make these kinds of robots smaller, smarter, and faster. When you make things smaller, the number of things you can do increases, and that’s where we hope to use lots of these guys. So think about a single flying phone that you have today; tomorrow, you’ll see a swarm of flying phones. That’s what we’re working towards.”

A swarm of flying phones? Where do I sign up?

[ UPenn ] and [ Qualcomm ]

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