By Dan Kane
As the spider-like drone climbed 25 feet into the air and flew nearly the length of the grassy expanse at the center of N.C. State University’s engineering school, Professor Mihail Sichitiu followed it on the ground with what appeared to be a remote control.
To a casual observer, it looked like he was a hobbyist flying his latest contraption. But the reality was the drone – a hexacopter – was flying on its own. His box had a kill switch to turn it off if it got out of control.
Sichitiu was serving as judge and marshal for a new contest at NCSU that may become an annual event. It was a challenge to engineering students across campus to create a program that a computerized drone would use to fly a path that took it through a virtual obstacle course.
Three teams of students had survived a semester of developing code to make the drones “think” well enough in flight to avoid a crash. Much of that work had been done through computer simulations. They spent Saturday testing that programming on a real drone flying in the real world, though the obstacles were virtual buildings and walls that the drones could see but people couldn’t.
For Sichitiu and his colleague, professor Rudra Dutta, the challenge was a novel way to push the envelope on drone technology. The team that did the best in meeting the challenge would collect $1,000.
“This is a cyber-computing challenge,” Dutta said. “We have never done anything in this sort of way.”
Dutta and Sichitiu both teach at NCSU’s engineering college on Centennial Campus. Dutta’s expertise is in computer science, while Sichitiu teaches electrical and computer engineering. They came up with the NCSU CentMesh Drones Challenge, which is named after the CentMesh wireless network that connects computers for research and education.
The challenge was open to graduate and undergraduate students, and in the end, the finalists were graduate students. Dutta said that’s probably because their more finely tuned organizational skills allowed them to find the time to work on the project.
Aruba Networks provided the cash prizes, and those who did the best also could be tapped to work on other CentMesh-related research. Small wonder that Yun Wang held her hands over her face when her programming went to work navigating the drone for Team YOLO (as in You Only Live Once) on the obstacle course. The drone got off to a good start, slipping between two virtual buildings, but then it dropped to the ground as it attempted to maneuver around a third.
She later ran back to the lab to try to figure out if there was a way to fix the programming before the challenge ended.
Team Splash Brothers was up next. The drone started out flying low to the ground, but it appeared to navigate the course, drawing a round of applause as it returned. But Dutta and Sichitiu said the drone appeared to think it could fly under one of the virtual buildings, when it needed to go around or over it.
Splash Brothers ended up tying with Team YOLO for first, and Team Garuda finished third.
Drones are often in the headlines these days. The U.S. has used them to kill militants in Yemen and Afghanistan, and they are potential privacy nightmares back home. North Carolina lawmakers have created a House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft to try to figure out how to regulate them.
Miguel Baguena Albaladejo of Team Splash Brothers acknowledged that the work he and his partners are doing could someday be used for nefarious purposes, but he sees the opportunities to benefit people as well, such as delivering necessities in dangerous situations.
“You can’t stop working because of that kind of fear,” he said, “because drones can be very useful things.”