Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology are using a Samsung Galaxy S II smartphone paired with an Atmel-based Arduino board as the brains behind a small, inexpensive drone dubbed the SmartCopter.
Annette Mossel, a graduate student behind the project, told Rachel Metz of the MIT Technology Review that the ‘copter is envisioned as an inexpensive, autonomous, unmanned aerial vehicle capable of surveying disaster zones. Indeed, harnessing a smartphone as the processing unit cuts costs and makes it easier to update the drone’s software. Excluding the phone, the copter cost approximately 300 euros ($412) to build.
“We wanted to keep the costs low and build our ‘copter based on open hardware approaches,” Mossel told the publication. “We don’t think, ‘Okay, in a year we will make a company and turn it into a product. But I think it’s pretty possible for all of us who are working on it.”
According to Mossel, one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced was determining how the drone could navigate without activating using the phone’s built-in GPS, as the technology is only accurate to within 26 feet.
“The group’s first prototype solved this challenge in a fairly low-tech way: by detecting paper markers that had been set up in the area the drone needed to track,” Metz explained. “An app on the smartphone tells the drone to lift itself to a predetermined height, from which it starts looking for the markers. Each time it finds a new marker, it is added to the drone’s map.”
The software is currently capable of determining the drone’s position by analyzing markers and evaluating sensory input from the smartphone’s accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer. If there are no new markers to be found, the drone hovers and awaits new instructions from a remote laptop monitoring its flight. The drone can also be programmed to land in a specific spot once its job is completed.
So what else does Mossel envision for the SmartCopter? A wide range of use cases, including inspecting the condition of walls and ceilings, analyzing open rooms in churches and museums, as well as helping shoppers navigate malls.
Interested in learning more about the SmartCopter? You can check out the project’s official page here.