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WATERLOO, Ont. — A University of Waterloo team won the best design award and placed second in the Millennial International Aerial Robotics Competition held last weekend in the United States.
The Waterloo Aerial Robotics Group, made up mainly of UW electrical and computer engineering graduate and undergraduate students, competed against top U.S. and Canadian universities in the event held in Washington State.
The competition involved having a flying robot survey an unknown terrain and help in a search-and-rescue effort. The robot was entirely under computer control, with no human intervention.
The UW team finished second, just behind Simon Fraser University. As well, the UW students received the best design award for their work, which included a complex integration of computer flight control, machine vision, pattern recognition and artificial intelligence.
“This is a very prestigious competition involving universities from all over North America including universities such as MIT and Georgia Tech,” said UW Prof. David Wang, electrical and computer engineering, and faculty adviser for the team.
“Many aspects of this competition push the boundaries of what is possible using current technology,” Wang added.
Joining project leader David Kroetsch on the team were core members Chris McKillop, Doug Hemingway, Gilbert Lai, Martin Hartshorne, and Vivek Balasubramanyam. They were assisted by members Adriano Bertucci, Alok Aggarwal, Cameron Woloshyn, Jan Bakus, Mattias Hembruch, Peter Vale, Tim Beyers and William Rosehart.
Among the team’s corporate sponsors were COM DEV, QNX, RIM, Northern Digital, Hi Tech and Flite Craft.
Imagine, the date is January 3, 2000, three days after the arrival of the new Millennium. It is also three days after the catatrophe that striked mankind and left, on the surface of the earth, ruined cities and a thick cloud of radioactive smoke. Nobody knows what happened. The survivors are mostly located in underground facilities. There are many questions remain unanswered: Are there other survivors out there? What has really happened? Because of the radiation and many unknown factors, it is not possible to send human search-and-rescue team to survey the surface. The ideal tool for the job would be autonomously flying machines that are smart enough to explore a large area in a hostile environment. Unfortunately, none is available…
Of course, there is still time before the new Millennium. As a good engineer, you anticipate and prepare for the worst to happen. You look back in the past and find the history on the development of autonomously flying machines…
Despite the obvious advantage of autonomous flying vehicle, the complexity involved makes the concept, until recently, realizable only in movie settings. Many challenges, such as stable autonomous controller and vision-guided navigation system, need to be solved before autonomous flying robots can become a reality. In view of this, Robert Michelson, past president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (AUVS), organized the first International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC) in 1990 to move forward the state-of-the art technology for aerial robots.
Since 1990, AUVS has been holding the IARC annually. Each year, aerial robots built by participating university teams will be required to perform specific tasks, such as autonomous flight, object identification and interaction with ground objects. In the beginning, these missions were thought to be almost unachievable by teams made up of university students. However, time has proven the opposite. Throughout the years, despite the ever increasing level of difficulty in the mission, participating teams were able to consistantly achieve the target requirements.
In 1997, the competition saw the helicopter-based robot from Carnegie Mellon University successfully achieved autonomous flight, real-time visual navigation, drum identification and label recognition; thereby completing over 90% of the mission. It was then the organizers felt that the time has come for stepping up the competition to the next level.
Up to 1997, the competition was conducted under highly structured environment. For example, teams were told to expect certain types of objects to be identified. To attain higher level of difficulty and to bring the mission closer to reality, the previously task-specific missions will be replaced by goal-specifc missions. The selected mission goal is search-and-rescue.
Instead of trying to complete specific tasks, under the new mission, each team will design a group of highly intelligent robots (both aerial and ground) to perform search-and-rescue operation in a disaster-like environment. The environment will be characterize by a random arrangement of obstacles as well as potentially damaging moving objects. For example, telephone poles may be in the flight path of the air vehicle and water jets from bursted pipes may be shooting randomly into the sky. The robotic teams will be required to navigate through hostile environment and look for human-like bodies. The human animatronics can be survivors (featuring waving arm motion and screaming sound) or dead bodies (motionless).
In addition to reporting the locations of these human bodies, the new mission also allows provision for tasks that will assist in real search-and-rescue operations. For instance, tasks such as providing life-support equipment to survivors, extinguishing fires and identifying hazards to be avoided are included in this category. As a result, the possibility is unlimited.
To bring the overall mission down to a manageable size, the competition will be divided into multiple stages, with the final competition set out for teams to achieve human search-and-rescue performance. In light of the beginning of the next millennium and to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the International Aerial Robotics Competition will hold the final competition, termed the Millennial Event, in 2000. The competition in 1998 was one of the two Qualifiers prior to the Millennial Event.
The 1998 Qualifier took place in August. The competition was held at U.S. Department of Energy’s Hazardous Material Management and Emergency Respone (HAMMER) facility in Richland, Washington. Subsequent competitions will also be held there. HAMMER offers many of the physical hazards that are suitable for the competition. Large scale fires, obscurring smoke and shooting water jets are among those that can be expected for the final competition.
The Waterloo Aerial Robotics Group (WARG) was among the many competitors participated in the 1998 Qualifier. Fourteen other teams from around the world competed. Among the teams were entries from schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Georgia Institute of Technology, University of California (Berkeley), University of British Colombia and Simon Fraser University.
WARG was established in 1997 at the University of Waterloo for building an entry into the Millennial Event. In their first competition, WARG has accumulated the second highest score, in addition to getting the best Overall Innovation award, in the 1998 Qualifier. The team is expected to compete again in the 1999 Qualifer to be held later this year in June.
Because of the potential sudden appearance of dangerous obstables, the flight control for the air vehicle will be quite dynamic, i.e. abrupt changes in the flight path might be required due to a jet of fire appearing in front of the helicopter. As such, a stable and robust control scheme will be essential to ensure flight safety. Similarly, the sensor system for detecting obstacles is also critical to the survival of the air vehicle. Therefore, our focus is on developing the control and vision system for the competition.
Our choice of air vehicle is a JR-Propo model helicopter. The helicopter is equipped with a Pentium 200 Single Board Computer (SBC) from Technoland for processing power, GPS unit from NovAtel for positioning data, PC/104 Capture Card from InSync Technologies for image data, 3DM solid state Roll-Pitch-Yaw sensor from MicroStrain for orientation data and radio modem from FreeWave. The SBC has 64 MEG of RAM and PC/104 expansion bus. PC/104 Flash Drive and Serial Expansion board (from ConnectTech Inc.) will be added to the SBC for extended functionality. The PC/104 Capture Card will be used together with two Sony cameras to provide steoerscopic image data. The NovAtel GPS, cameras and 3DM sensor together collect all the sensory data for the helicopter. The SBC onboard the helicopter will be communicating back to a base station computer (via the radio modem) for status update and system monitoring. The base station computer is a Pentium laptop computer. Both systems run QNX 4. Communication between them is via QNX message passing.
Early on, we have decided to perform all processing tasks onboard the helicopter in order to avoid delay in the helicopter response time. Tasks on the helicopter are divided into subsystems. There will be an artifical intelligence system responsible for high level decision making such as navigation. The AI system will make use of data collected by the various sensor systems (such as vision) in compiling its decisions. As well, AI will steer the course of the helicopter by sending commands to the control system. The vision system processes image data collected by the cameras and provides information such as potential location of survivors. The control system will be responsible for maintaining in-flight stability of the helicopter. It will accept flight commands in the form of desired position of the helicopter. Once a new command is received, the control system will generate the necessary control signals for bringing the helicopter to the specified position and output those control signals to the servos.
The AI system will also communicate to the base station computer about the findings that it has acquired from the field. In addition to monitoring, the base station computer also serves as a backup computation engine. For example, images that contain potential objects of interest (such as survivors) may be sent to the base station for further processing to confirm (or reject) the findings.
The foremost requirement for a successful entry is stability of the software platform. We cannot afford the Operating System (OS) to crash in the middle of a flight. Further, to be able to react quickly to unexpected events and maneuver away from danger, the controller must be running in a relatively fast and periodic fashion. This implies that a Real Time Operating System (RTOS) will be required. Real Time Operating Systems are often characterized by size and speed with good ones being small and fast. Another, often ignored, characteristic of a good RTOS is guarenteed minimum time to service. This last characteristic is the most importatant in our situation. For example, we must be able to switch to the control process on time to calculate the control signals to avoid crashing. By the same token, a RTOS is also necessary for the capturing and processing of visual data used in detection of obstacles. Thus, selection of both the software and hardware to be used onboard the air vehicle are of equal importance.
Where does QNX fit into this problem and what made QNX the best choice? Being a RTOS, QNX forms a good candidate for our project. Also, there are several key features of QNX that made it by far the best choice for this project: its self-hosted environment, scalability, and most importantly its inherent distributed nature. Each of these features made QNX attractive, and even critical to the success of our project.
Having a self-hosted environment allows group members not only to work at home on their peronsonal computers but to prototype solutions in an interactive environment. Having this interactive environment allows for rapid development since testing and debugging can occur on desktop PCs. This allows more people in the project to be productively writing code at one time than would be possible if they had to run and test the code on the real embedded systems.
QNX’s scalability coupled with the self-hosted environment gives our project a single operating system that can be used in the field. Ranging from our laptop computers to the embedded Pentium SBCs and, in the future, to the smaller 386 PC/104 form factor computers, QNX can run as the OS for all of them. Due to QNX’s micro kernel design and the flexibility that QSSL provides to developers, we can reduce our system size down to the bare minimum that is required to run. This means that we don’t need any physical drives. We can rely completely on flash-based devices and RAM drives for perminant and temporary data storage. In a ruggedized system, such as ours, having solid-state components is important. For instance, a standard hard drive would not be able to function correctly on our helicopter due to strong vibration. At the other end of the spectrum, we are able to scale QNX up as a full-blown general purpose OS to be used on our ground station laptops.
Lastly, and most importantly, QNX’s inherent distributed nature plays a critical role in our system. By design, QNX is able to provide a seamless distributed system, using the same form of inter-process communication (IPC) that it uses on a single machine, to allow processes across many nodes (machines on a network) to communicate. This is a very powerful concept. In our design, each robot in the system is a QNX network node. This allows the AI systems on each individual robot and the AI system on the ground station to communicate as if they were all part of the same computer. An example of how we exploit this functionality is our Configuration Server. This server process runs on our ground station laptop and provides a central source for all the robots to query their configuration and profiles at boot time. This lets us use the hard drive of the laptop as the central storage source. With this setup, for simple configuration changes in the field, we can simply edit a file on the base station laptop and restart the robot – no firmware changes! Besides providing an easy way for processes to communicate across a network, QNX’s distributedness goes even deeper; all resources on all nodes can be accessed from any node on the network – files, devices, etc. This is very useful while testing in the field. If we are having a problem with a sensor on a robot we can simply open the data port on that robot remotely from our base computer and see what the data looks like; as if the data port was actually attached to the base station!
As mentioned, the WARG team has accumulated second place standing after the first Qualifier in 1998. Our success relied on an innovative divison of labour design and our choice of a stable software platform for development. QNX’s flexibility has sped up our design process significantly and increased the efficiency and reliability of our system. We are looking forward to compete again in the 1999 Qualifier with QNX on our side once more.
International Aerial Robotics Competition Web Site:
by Chris McKillop
WARG Team Member
Many people have walked by the door to Waterloo Aerial Robotics Group lab on the second floor of E2 and wondered, “What the heck is that?”. A good number of people assume that it is a grad student lab. It’s not. The Waterloo Aerial Robotics Group (WARG) is an undergraduate student research project aimed at developing control, vision, and artificial intelligence systems for autonomous robots. Currently the group is very focused in on getting an RC helicopter to fly unmanned in any environment and also to be able to identify people and other objects it flies over. The group is aiming to compete in the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems’ Millennial Competition in the year 2000. For more information on that event see http://avdil.gtri.gatech.edu/AUVS/IARCLaunchPoint.html.
WARG was started just over a year ago within the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. A 1A Comp, David Kroetsch, had done a similar project while he was in high school and now that he was at Waterloo was interested in moving the project to a higher level. Prof. David Wang (not a P.Eng) helped Kroetsch by bringing together different students that had expressed interest to him in participating in such a robotics competition. As time passed WARG was augmented with students from Systems Design and from Computer Science.
This past summer at a preliminary competition, WARG took second place beating schools such as MIT, Georgia Tech, and Berkeley. The group was also given an award for Overall Innovation. In order to continue this success and to win the Millennial event, WARG needed to raise more money to fund further research.
To this end, current sponsors and approximately 20 other local high tech companies were invited to come to campus to attend a presentation on the project and to meet the group members; dubbed WARG Day. This event happened on Friday, October 16th and was very successful. Nearly 10 companies sent representatives ranging from engineers to presidents. At the end of the day there were several new companies interested in sponsoring the group’s research and several previous sponsors expressing an interest in increasing their sponsorship.
The group would like to thank the following people/groups; the E&CE department for the refreshments, ICR for the use of their facilities in the Davis Center, and in AV for the promotional video. Without their help WARG Day would not have been possible. For more information on the group and also to see who makes this project possible (read: sponsors) please feel free to explore http://ece.uwaterloo.ca/~warg/. Also, watch for an announce in the near future from WARG looking to interested students to help make WARG the first place finisher in 2000.
special to Imprint
After keeping their heads high and hopes strong through trial after tribulation, the troops have finally returned home from the battlefield. Our very own Waterloo Aerial Robotics Groups (WARG) recently came back from Richland, Washington, where they competed in the 10th Annual International Aerial Robotics Competition from June 25 to July 1.
This year’s competition was especially important because it marked the final year of the competition’s three -year long millennium competition. The teams had to qualify in the competition in both 1998 and 1999 in order to compete this year. Each year, the objective of the competition changes, and this year’s was based on a search and rescue simulation. A natural disaster was simulated and the team’s aerial robot had to be able to fly into the disaster area and identify human bodies in areas too dangerous for human search and rescue teams to enter on the ground. The helicopter/robot had to be able to identify with the use of sensors the locations of human bodies, and whether they were dead or alive in order to be able to extract the survivors from the disaster area as quickly as possible.
WARG is a group of 10 to 15 Engineering students started in 1998 by Dave Kroetsch, and has competed successfully each year, qualifying for this year’s final leg of the competition. Unfortunately, the fates seemed to be against the team going to compete in Washington this year when their lab was broken into in May and valuable equipment and data was stolen. It was never recovered and the motive and thieves were never discovered. They also crashed one of their three helicopters just weeks before leaving for the competition. But the team persevered and recovered enough equipment and data in enough time to go to Washington.
Upon arrival in Richland, Washington, the team discovered that some of their equipment had been damaged in transit and they quickly had to work to fix it before their test flights. Hoping things had settled down, the team began test flights. Their helicopter crashed during one of the flights and they lost the blades and the tail, forcing them to order replacement parts, which never came. The group prepped their other helicopter but still ended up missing their flight for third qualifier position because the equipment they had added to solve a sensor problem weighed the helicopter down too much and it couldn’t lift off the ground.
Right about now you’re asking yourself, how could things have gone any worse? They could and they did. By the fifth day in Washington the teams received word that a car accident had caused a brush fire close to the competition’s site and that they may need to evacuate. The brush fire turned to a full-fledged forest fire destroying dozens of homes and hundreds of acres of woodland. The team had to get into the closed competition’s facility to try and rescue what of their equipment they could, should the wind have decided blow the fire further in their direction. Luckily, the team did not have to evacuate the area entirely. However, close to the competition’s site is Hanford Nuclear Treatment Plant, where hazardous radioactive waste is stored. The danger posed by the fire forced officials in the area to delay the competition while the area was checked for threat of radiation. Eventually the show went on and the team had high hopes of being able to compete after doing simulations and preparing for flight the day before the site was reopened.
WARG ended up placing sixth out of nine teams. During their recovery testing, due to technical problems, the signal didn’t make it from the control handset to the helicopter and it ended up hitting the ground at full speed. The helicopter was destroyed and they missed their chance to fly in the final round. The German team ended up winning the competition with a fully successful flight.
Through all of the frustrations and setbacks the team was forced to ordeal, they kept their spirits high and persevered together. The team rolled with the punches and adapted to everything that was thrown their way, showing great character and strong teamwork. David Wang, faculty advisor for WARG was quoted in the Daily Bulletin as having said, “This year’s team has shown tremendous character. They are disappointed with the results and al the roadblocks they have faced, but I am very proud of the way our students have tried to persevere.” Also according to the Daily Bulletin news put together by Rob Schmidt and Ryan Chen-Wing, the team intends on persevering even further by continuing work on the helicopters when they are delivered back from Washington, “We would like to prove to ourselves that we can do this.” The group is also anticipating next year’s rules (which come out in August) and are anxious to begin their new pursuit. Hopefully the fates will work with them instead of against them in next year’s competition and WARG will come out on top where their hard work and efforts deserves to be.
For those of you looking for an introduction into aerial robotics, WARG will be running a station on the Campus Day, March 16th 2010. The WARG team will give out an presentation on aerial robotics, our past projects and possibly a demonstration. There will also be a display of WARG airplanes in a lab in the new E3 extension building. (So you will have a chance to get a tour around our fantastic building!)
Please pay attention for future updates on the location!
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Welcome BACK to campus! I hope all of you enjoyed your short winter break!
Many students have emailed us about joining WARG the winter term. Unfortunately, the WARG Team is not ready to accept new members for this term. However, we are looking for students with interest in the 2010 Fall term. Please feel free to keep in touch with the WARG Team for future updates.