When we think of robotics, the first thing that usually comes to mind for many of us is some sort of industrial arm that’s bolted to the floor, or perhaps a semi-autonomous rover trudging its way across the dusty Martian landscape. While these two environments are about as different as can be, the basic “rules” are pretty much the same. Being on firm ground ground gives the robot a clear understanding of its position and orientation, which greatly simplifies tasks such as avoiding collisions or interacting with nearby objects.
But what happens when that reference point goes away? How does a robot navigate when it’s flying through open space or hovering in mid-air? That’s just one of the problems that fascinates Nick Rehm, who stopped by to host this week’s Aerial Robotics Hack Chat to talk about his passion for flying robots. He’s currently an aerospace engineer at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, where he works on the unique challenges faced by autonomous flying vehicles such as the detection and avoidance of mid-air collisions, as well as the development of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) systems. But before he had his Master’s in Aerospace Engineering and Rotorcraft, he got started the same way many of us did, by playing around with DIY projects.
In fact, regular Hackaday readers will likely recall seeing some of his impressive builds. His autonomous ekranoplan designed to follow a target using computer vision graced the front page in April. Back in 2020, we took a look at his recreation of SpaceX’s Starship prototype, which used a realistic arrangement of control surfaces and vectored thrust to perform the spacecraft’s signature “Belly Flop” maneuver — albeit with RC motors and propellers instead of rocket engines. But even before that, Nick recalls asking his mother for permission to pull apart a Wii controller so he could use its inertial measurement unit (IMU) in a wooden-framed tricopter he was working on.
Discussing some of these hobby builds leads the Chat towards Nick’s dRehmFlight project, a GPLv3 licensed flight control package that can run on relatively low-cost hardware, namely a Teensy 4.0 microcontroller paired with the GY-521 MPU6050 IMU. The project is designed to let hobbyists easily experiment with VTOL craft, specifically those that transition between vertical and horizontal flight profiles, and has powered the bulk of Nick’s own flying craft.
Moving onto more technical questions, Nick says one of the most difficult aspects when designing an autonomous flying vehicle is getting your constraints nailed down. What he means by that is having a clear goal of what the craft needs to do, and critically, how long it needs to do it. How far does the craft need to be able to fly? How fast? Does it need to loiter at the target location, and if so, for how long? The answers to these questions will largely dictate the form of the final vehicle, and are key to determining if it’s worth implementing the complexity of transitioning from VTOL to fixed-wing horizontal flight.
But according to Nick, the biggest challenge in aerial robotics is onboard state estimation. That is, the ability for the craft to know its position and orientation relative to the ground. While high-performance computers have gotten lighter and sensors have improved, he says there’s still no substitute for having a ground-based tracking system. He mentions that those fancy demonstrations you’ve seen with drones flying in formation and working collaboratively towards a task will almost certainly have an array of motion capture cameras tucked off to the side. This makes for an impressive show, but greatly limits the practical application of these drone swarms.
So what does the future of aerial robotics look like? Nick says open source projects like ArduPilot and PX4 are still great choices for hobbyists, but sees promise in newer platforms which pair the traditional autopilot with more onboard computing power, such as Auterion’s Skynode. More powerful flight controllers can enable techniques such as simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), which uses 3D scans of the environment to help the robot orient itself. He’s also very interested in technologies that enable autonomous flight in GPS-denied environments, which is critical for robotic craft that need to operate indoors or in situations where satellite navigation is unavailable or unreliable. In light of the incredible success of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter, we imagine these techniques will also play an invaluable role in the future airborne exploration of Mars.
We want to thank Nick for hosting this week’s Aerial Robotics Hack Chat, which turned out to be one of the fastest hours in recent memory. His experience as both an avid hobbyist and a professional in the field provided exactly the sort of insight the Hackaday community looks for, and his gracious offer to keep in touch with several of those who attended the Chat to further discuss their projects speaks to how passionate he is about this topic. We expect to see great things from Nick going forward, and would love to have him join us again in the future to see what he’s been up to.
The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.