Navigating into the future

Mechanical engineering professor developing autonomous flying systems with humanitarian applications

Kam Leang

Kam Leang is fascinated with little, flying robots. And if you spend even a few minutes talking to him about them, odds are you'll walk away from the conversation fascinated too.

"How can you not get excited by seeing one of these things fly?" he asked. "I think there are a lot of cool applications waiting to be discovered."

Leang, an associate professor in mechanical engineering, focuses his research on developing systems that help these unmanned autonomous systems, or UAS as they are called in the industry, navigate and maneuver indoors.

"I think there's going to be a growing need for these systems to work well indoors," he said. "You can't get GPS signals in a building. If they don't have any way of localizing themselves in such an environment, they are going to have a hard time figuring out where they are and how to fly autonomously."

Some degree of autonomy is a critical factor for many of the applications Leang is excited about, including search and rescue and exploring hazardous areas, particularly in tight spaces. Developing systems that can go into areas where humans can't — or shouldn't — venture opens the door for a wide range of humanitarian and scientific applications, including data gathering in hurricanes or locating victims of natural disasters.

"Let's say that our platforms do work and they can go and look around," Leang said. "Then that's one of our contributions, and then I think you're going to find people who say ‘Hey you have a cool tool. We would like to use it.'"

Leang is currently working on a new project with just that kind of application in mind. He's collaborating with Nevada NanoTech Systems, a local company, to integrate sensors with small, flying robots that can autonomously detect chemical concentrations that may be hazardous to humans. By sending the flying robot in ahead of time, Leang hopes potentially dangerous areas can be discovered before humans are exposed to the risk.

Navigation in many of the outdoor applications can be handled by existing aircraft equipped with GPS navigation systems, although researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno are working on projects to optimize battery life and improve sensing and vision capabilities, among other things. But navigating outdoors relies on two affordances indoor systems don't have: the availability of GPS and a little bit of wiggle room.

"Because they are equipped with GPS they know where they are within a 3-foot diameter, and that's fine for flying outdoors," Leang said. "However 3 feet indoors is impossible. They are going to run right into that wall."

In addition to solving technical challenges, there are a number of regulatory issues that the rapidly emerging field of UAS needs to resolve.

"In order for us to use these flying robots for humanitarian efforts, rules and regulations are needed for how to operate them within the national airspace and coordinate them with commercial planes," Leang said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has an ambitious roadmap in place to develop rules and regulations for civilian use of UAS. The first stage in the process, completed at the end of 2013, involved expanding air space designated for testing. Nevada was named one of six designated test site states. But routine access to the national airspace for civilian UAS isn't slated to occur until after 2020, and even that may be optimistic.

"Because of the current restrictions on the airspace it's more convenient to work indoors, but I also know that flying indoors is going to be important," Leang said. "I'm trying to stay ahead of the pack."

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