Stanford graduates pilot unmanned aircraft project

Helicopters flying without any pilots may seem like the realm of science fiction, but one group of Peninsula researchers is working toward just that.

The unmanned, “autonomous helicopters” they have developed could fly over wildfires, volcanoes and other dangerous situations.

One of the big steps forward in technology that the group has made is how the robot is programmed to fly the aircraft, according to Pieter Abbeel, a recent Stanford graduate student who worked on the project with three classmates and their computer science professor, Andrew Ng.

A computer on the ground uses two cameras to watch maneuvers, such as a flip, being performed, Abbeel said.

The computer has sensors that monitor the angling rate, acceleration and direction. After about 10 times of seeing the maneuver, the computer should be able to replicate it, he said.

The autonomous helicopters could eventually be used in dangerous situations to replace aircraft piloted by humans, Abbeel said.

“Everybody tries to think of ways in which their research might help people,” said Adam Coates, a doctoral student at Stanford who worked on the project. “I think the fascinating thing about this is that stuff comes up that we didn’t even think about before.”

Abbeel said a possible next step would be for the technology to operate cars, although he admitted it is an entirely different concept altogether. Helicopter flying is hard enough with different wind speeds and conditions, but learning how to deal with traffic signs, other motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and all the other variables of driving would make that effort far more difficult, he said.

The group admits that it is no coincidence that it was able to develop such state-of-the-art technology on the Peninsula.

“It’s been great being around here because there are lots of high-tech companies that we can talk to,” Coates said.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

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