Send in the Drones

Students take flight in Brown Summer Robotics Project


Many local students doubtless spent the summer working unexciting jobs (or working on their tans, if they were lucky). But Brown University undergrads Luke Eller, Theo Guerin, Garrett Warren, and Sophie Yang took on an unusual assignment during their break: They worked to improve the performance of autonomous drones. The aerial machines were the focus of an introductory robotics course taught in the school’s Computer science department.

Assistant professor Stefanie Tellex uses the drones as a teaching tool in the robotics course. You’re probably familiar with operator-controlled drones, like those used by hobbyists and racers. Such machines are always under the operators’ control, Tellex explains. The operators need constant visual contact with the aircraft to guide them effectively; otherwise, the drones are likely to fly off and crash.

In contrast, autonomous drones have multiple sensors and onboard software that allow them to function independently – without direct user control. These sensors can include a camera to calculate the drone’s velocity and position, for example. A range sensor tells the drone how high it is above the ground, while a third sensor assesses the drone’s immediate surroundings. 

Students in Brown’s Introductory Robotics course, which was first offered last fall, learned how these systems work by assembling their own inexpensive drones and programming them to fly indoors. Tellex wanted to improve the drone’s capabilities for future classes, so this past summer the Brown undergraduates and students from the Providence Career & Technical Academy worked to accomplish that.

The project had several goals, Tellex explains. She wanted to give the drones the indoor equivalent of GPS, which only works outdoors because receivers need a line of sight to the satellites. Another goal was to give the drone’s onboard computer the ability to simultaneously localize and map its location while flying.

Working with the drone’s small onboard processing unit was a challenge, but students achieved more than Tellex anticipated, and the four undergrads will share their knowledge with this fall’s introductory robotics class by serving as teaching assistants. The project’s results ultimately will benefit a wider audience, Tellex believes: “My goal is that any student at the high school or undergraduate level who wants access to robotics and to learn robotics can use this platform to do that.”