3D Robotics


Remember a year ago when Randy used an ArduCopter to autonomously drop a rover on a freakin' volcano? Good times. 

Well, now the European Space Agency has done the same thing, but this time time they have ridiculous music, a massive budget and a bunch of German university researchers. They also say it's for a Mars rover, which will be quite a trick for the quadcopter, since the Martian atmosphere barely exists (it's 0.6% the density of Earth's atmosphere, which means copters wouldn't work). Let's assume they know this, and if they actually do drop a rover on Mars, the dropship will have rockets, not props. 

You can read the whole over-the-top press release below. But really, the music in that video has to be heard for full comic effect:

Watch the video HERE (it won't embed for some reason)

The dramatic conclusion to ESA’s latest StarTiger project: a ‘dropship’ quadcopter steers itself to lower a rover gently onto a safe patch of the rocky martian surface.

StarTiger’s Dropter project was tasked with developing and demonstrating a European precision-landing capability for Mars and other targets.

The Skycrane that lowered NASA’s Curiosity rover onto Mars showed the potential of this approach, precisely delivering rovers to their science targets while avoiding rock fields, slopes and other hazards.

“StarTiger is a fresh approach to space engineering,” explains Peter de Maagt, overseeing the project. “Take a highly qualified, well-motivated team, gather them at a single well-equipped site, then give them a fixed time to solve a challenging technical problem.”

This latest team was hosted at Airbus Defence & Space’s facility in Bremen, Germany, joined by engineers from the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, Portgual’s Spin.Works aeronautics company, and Poland’s Poznań University of Technology Institute of Control and Information Engineering.

Starting from scratch for the eight-month project, the Dropter team was challenged to produce vision-based navigation and hazard detection and avoidance for the dropship.

It has to identify a safe landing site and height before winching down its passenger rover on a set of cables.

Flying to a maximum height of 17 m, the dropship comes gently down to 10 m above the ground, where it begins lowering the rover on a 5 m-long bridle, coming lower until the rover touches down. Then it returns to a safe altitude.

Flight testing took place at Airbus’s Trauen site in northern Germany, which back in the 1940s was the scene of spaceplane pioneer Eugen Sänger’s rocket experiments.

A 40 m by 40 m Mars-scape was created, littered with hazardous rocks, where the dropship had to pick a safe spot to deliver its passenger.

Dropter team

The dropship was customised for the project from commercial quadcopter components, with a smaller drone used for preparatory indoor testing.

Using GPS and inertial systems to fly into position, it then switched to vision-based navigation supplemented by a laser range-finder and barometer to land its rover autonomously.

This demonstration having proved the concept, the dropship approach is now available for follow-on development by planetary missions to come.

About StarTiger

StarTiger, a pioneering ESA initiative in technology R&D

StarTiger stands for ‘Space Technology Advancements by Resourceful, Targeted and Innovative Groups of Experts and Researchers’ working within the Agency’s TRP Basic Technology Research Programme.

It brings team members together on a single site to work on a set challenge, aiming to produce a working prototype by the end of the project’s time limit.

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  • Things which might be of interest for those interested in the technologies behind this:

    1) Vision-based navigation is based on feature template matching, followed by a random sample consensus-based homography estimation algorithm. Then this homography is used as an observation of position/attitude for navigation purposes.

    2) Hazard detection and avoidance is based on texture and illumination maps. Texture indicates the presence of rocks (those too small to constitute a hazard are filtered out with a gaussian filter); illumination maps indicate areas where contrast might be too low to draw conclusions on their safety (on Mars, illumination maps would also help avoid areas where sunlight might not be available to recharge batteries immediately after landing). Finally, a transform is applied to find the pixel in the image which is most distant to a hazard, which is selected as the safe landing site.

    3) Everything you see in the video on the copter side is working on a 'vanilla' Raspberry Pi (data handling, flight mode management, trajectory control) and a Ximea Currera-R smart camera (image acquisition, processing and storage, vision navigation, hazard detection and avoidance). IMU works at 400Hz (as does attitude control), Barometer at 25Hz, Ranging at ~10Hz, and imaging at 5Hz (due to the limited computational power on the Intel Atom running in the smart camera). Hazard detection and avoidance works at 1Hz.

    4) All of the vision navigation and hazard detection technologies have been developed for space applications during ESA projects, but will likely be applied at some point to UAVs, since the company involved in these fields (Spin.Works, from Portugal) is generally focused on using small UAVs for civil applications (agriculture, forestry, cartography, etc).

  • Just a note about the project: two papers were recently published at the ESA GNC Conference, which might be a good, let's say, "complement" to the video. Lots of details there.

  • ESAs boys and EU goverment projects are ALWAYS very serious - as well as their seniors salaries and vacation. Bombastic music and safety measures (even not very properly applied) is a must, too. But of course (if) there will be paper(s) that come out - these will be paid and with small discount only if one is IEEE or some other community member.

    My 2 cents...

  • Interesting to see that they use the SF02 Laser range finder for terrain distance measurement. I will guess that they have to filter out the data to avoid false readings due to the beam bouncing on the rover in windy conditions.

  • Developer

    @Hugues: The high ratio of political blogs is only natural in the current climate. There are some key issues being argued at this very moment, that will have a huge impact on how every RC/FPV/UAS pilot out there may or may not operate.

    But I agree that the general tone can be somewhat negative at times. I guess much of it has to do with seeing the things we in the community have been doing just for the fun of it, being presented as the latest revolutionary innovation by some company seeking financial gains.

  • I think the main failure of the video isn't the subject matter, it's just the video it self. The project might in fact be very cool, but the video does not do anything to sell the project. They could have shown the drone hunting for a good landing spot, maybe some commentary about making the technology work. Perhaps a comparison of doing the test with the video navigation running, and with out.

    Instead, it's just footage of people intensely checking things off on a clipboard, and 5 seconds of the quad dropping a rover. Don't get me wrong, all that clipboard check marking is probably super important, but they could have gotten way cooler footage of the build process and tech involved.

  • MR60

    A pity this site is turning away from what made its success, by observing a majority of posts that are polemics,politics, rants, negative, ads even, etc. 

    Where is the constructive "on topic" community spirit gone? (Not even a year ago, I remember how the vast majority of blog posts were truly content rich on topic. Today any subject is blogged often off topic). It is amazing for me who hated rcgroups and much preferred diydrones, that I find myself going more often on rcgroups to find interesting on topic contents.

    I am not the only one feeling that way. I would suggest first leadership by example and that starts by , Chris, maybe-just an idea, to publish blogs in categories: politics, rants, true dig stuff, etc. And thus to not let main blogs be used as a bin for any topic.

    Sorry this an off topic rant...

  • Developer

    but this time time they have ridiculous music,

    I think we need a vote on music backgrounds used in drone flight promotions on this site, and please add any I have missed or fogotten. I'm the man wearing the radioactive proof suit ;)

    1) Steadidrone 2013 http://diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/video-steadidrone-qu4d (Radioactive! for good! I love just to list all the flights that have this tune added, as it seems a lot)

    2) Iris Teaser http://diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/iris-teaser-video (easy listening rock!?)

    3) Pocket Drone http://diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/pocketdrone-new-apm-based-kicks... (Elevator Music)

    4) http://diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/airdog-yet-another-follow-me-co... (folksy, aka Kate Bush)

    5) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sqdr/hexo-your-autonomous-aeri... (Wow, a mega mix, orchestra, electronic, rock, PWEI, more rock, orchestra, get yours now! I want one, here’s a $million ;-)

    6) Hex https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1387330585/hex-a-copter-that-a... (Folksy, Sesame Street?

  • This quadcopter used for ESA vision-based navigation and hazard detection and avoidance system testning.
    Drone named "Dropter" is developed in Poznañ University of Technology/Institute of Control and Information Engineering

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnIHWftmd0o

    ESA chnl on YT

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