Software innovations improve public, UAS safety

Whether its a 2-pound quadcopter flying 50 feet off the ground or a 13-ton Global Hawk operating in the stratosphere, all unmanned aerial systems (UAS) need software to operate safely. These offerings are helping.
By UAS Magazine Staff | April 24, 2015

Whether it’s a 2-pound quadcopter flying 50 feet off the ground or a 13-ton Global Hawk operating in the stratosphere, all unmanned aerial systems (UAS) need software to operate safely and to assure that the data they collect serves a useful purpose. Throughout the U.S., companies and universities are developing innovative software solutions for UAS.

A research team at Texas A&M-Corpus Christie has developed an application called SituMap for law enforcement agencies and emergency first responders. When paired with UAS high-resolution imagery and a coffee-table-sized Microsoft Surface Table, the software provides emergency management decision makers with a powerful tool that can help them make plans and provide direction during situations when time is of the essence.

“We collect high-resolution, high-accuracy data because we run proper survey controls,” said Richard Smith, assistant professor in the university’s science and engineering department. “Then we integrate that into SituMap. The police chief gets it, we have it, and that allows police to increase their awareness for public safety.”

Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is one of six UAS test sites in the U.S. designated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Under the university’s certificate of authorization, a senseFly eBee UAV is flown over the campus every two months to gather data.

To make the program appealing and user-friendly, Smith drew on his knowledge of computer games while incorporating ideas from World War II movies and the Matchbox toys from his childhood.

“With SituMap, the idea is to reduce the barriers of entry for mapping,” Smith explained. “Do I want to draw on the hood of an SUV or draw on SituMap and share it?”

Botlink of Fargo, North Dakota, is commercializing software that provides UAS operators with information on the airspace in which they’re operating, such as where manned and unmanned aircraft are located in relation to their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It can work as a smartphone app in the field or on a desktop computer to monitor and direct a fleet of UAVs.

“At the heart of all our platforms is the safety net,” said Shawn Muehler, Botlink CEO. “We believe that anybody flying should have a safety net feature. We’re the only platform that has this feature built in as its foundation.”

With Botlink, UAS operators who want to fly safely can. The program not only creates situational awareness and lets them know if they’re flying in controlled airspace, but it also tells them how to contact the nearest FAA control center should the need arise.

“On top of that, we put in all the regulations—400 feet and the regulations that pertain to UAV flying or that are specific to manned aircraft, but correlate to UAV flying,” Muehler noted. “Our first goal was to build a safety platform for people to go flying and still have fun, but be legal, to know what they’re doing.”

On a more basic level, Galois of Portland, Oregon, has developed an open-source programming tool called SMACM (Secure Mathematically-Assured Composition of Control Models) Pilot. Designed with security as a priority, it enables programmers to create UAS applications such as autopilots that can be safely and reliably modified.

“Right now, I feel like we’re probably the only solution to having a tool kit that enables you build into a better drone versus software that seven or eight people wrote and nobody else understands or knows how to change,” said Patrick Hickey, a Galois software engineer. “If something goes wrong in that software, your flying lawnmower goes out of control and could hurt somebody.”

As Hickey explained, it’s not about providing an autopilot program that enables someone to take a UAV to the park and have fun, but instead giving software engineers the ability to write an autopilot program that does what they need it to do.

“I’m more interested in tools than in products,” he said. “I think we need more tool kits and fewer polished products.”

SMACCMPilot runs on PX4 hardware, a platform used by hobbyists, researchers and developers. The PX4 Autopilot Project is an open-source, open-hardware project led by the Pixhawk group at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology). It’s supported by 3D Robotics, a leading manufacturer of open-source unmanned aerial vehicle technology.

“The real value in what we’re doing isn’t the one piece of drone software we made,” Hickey said. “We’ve got a set of tools where you can make changes to the way this drone is supposed to behave. Or you could make a completely new thing, such as software that goes in an automobile or a rocket or a pacemaker—any number of safety-critical applications.”