YouTube videos notwithstanding, operating an unmanned aerial vehicle – a drone – isn’t as easy as it looks, according to Shimon Mizrahi of the Jerusalem College of Technology’s Lev Academic Institute.
“It takes a good couple of weeks of intense practice to be able to avoid obstacles and walls, and even then you have to be very quick. And in closed quarters indoors, it’s very difficult even for a practiced operator to avoid crashes.”
So a JCT team led by Mizrahi has developed a low-cost (about NIS 17,000 or $3,800) idiot-proof navigation system for a sensor- and camera-laden drone that can be used in a wide variety of safety and security scenarios.
“Our four propeller quadcopter is designed for use by an ordinary person who is not skilled in operating advanced remote controls,” Mizrahi said. “It’s the first indoor drone, and the ideal solution for use in structures or scenarios where it would be dangerous for individuals to venture.”
That would include, said Mizrahi, a Gaza terror tunnel.
“Finding the tunnels is actually the easier part of dealing with this threat,” said Mizrahi. “The IDF and Defense Ministry have gotten thousands of proposals over the past two years that claim to be solutions to locating tunnels, based on ultrasound and other technologies, and there are advanced practical solutions being developed for this. The question is, what do you do with a tunnel once you find it? That’s the problem our solution deals with, and it is the first one that can do this.”
In tunnel discovery, as well as tunnel exploration, the problem isn’t the technology – it’s the interface, said Mizrahi.
“Sensors and cameras for drones are not the problem, but controlling the drone to make sure that the equipment does what it is supposed to is the challenge. You have to look at it from the point of the operator, who in this case is an 18- or 19-year-old kid whose previous remote control skills were in controlling a television or video game. The interface has to be easy enough for that soldier to use in the field, without destroying the expensive piece of equipment he is using.”
To do that, the JCT quadcopter contains a “self-preservation” element that enables it to avoid crashing into walls or other obstacles.
“The drone has sensors that send back data about environmental conditions inside, such as atmosphere, temperature, and other data, as well as cameras that send back photos and videos,” said Mizrahi. “The drone is of course controlled by its operator, who is outside the structure being explored. In a small, narrow space like a tunnel, the chances of crashing into a wall are very high – but our quadcopter contains a mechanism that ensures that this won’t happen. Even if the operator’s actions advance it toward an obstacle, the drone will draw back or conduct other evasive action to avoid the problem.”
The drone is responding to a sort of universal self-preservation instinct – a “prime directive” – that places its survival as its primary goal.
“Of course this is programmed into the quadcopter,” said Mizrahi. “The challenge is to ensure that it can override user error. Many companies and research bodies have been working on that problem for a long time. We are the first ones to demonstrate that it is possible.”
JCT has presented its solution to the Defense Ministry as well as other rescue bodies – such as firefighters – who could use the quadcopter to explore dangerous venues, such as burning buildings.
“Right now it’s a proof of concept, but we have gotten a lot of interest from groups – public and private – who want to help develop this further. We are working with the IDF and other defense organizations on the development of this project,” said Mizrahi. “When people think of defense systems, they think of big projects like Iron Dome, but small projects – both in scale and budget – can do a great deal to save lives.”