Researchers in the Netherlands have designed a thumbnail-size autopilot system that they say is the lightest in the world, at just 1.9 grams.  That should free up a fair amount of carrying capacity for the micro air vehicles (MAVs) that may one day serve as the eyes and ears of emergency rescue teams.

"Our dream is that every firefighter carries an MAV in his breast pocket to use for inspections of collapsed or burning buildings, without having to go inside," says Bart Remes, head of the MAV lab at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands. They designed the autopilot, called Lisa/s, on an open-source model to encourage others to play with it and offer their suggestions.

Here's a video of a quadcopter and a tiny helicopter controlled by Lisa/s.

As you can see, the autopilot doesn't send the little craft off on acrobatics or guide them to targets; it just stabilizes their flight. That's "one piece of the puzzle" of autonomous flight, says Sebastian Scherer, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. Two other pieces—sensing the environment and planning a route that avoids obstacles—are needed to achieve autonomous flight.

"These kinds of autopilots are very common, however, the size makes it special," Scherer says. "It does not have sensors to make it 'intelligent' or able to avoid obstacles (which is a lot harder). Also, this autopilot can currently fly only outdoors, away from objects."

In next month's IEEE Spectrum, Scherer and his colleague, Lyle Chamberlain, will describe their work on a fully autonomous U.S. Army helicopter designed to evacuate wounded soldiers. But that robo-copter is big and costly, whereas the Delft researchers envisage something tiny and cheap that can buzz through burning corridors, see who's there, and radio for help.

Photo: TU Delft

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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