OK, I think I should preface this by saying that this is a high risk project. Many things could go wrong, the most obvious one being time. I do have a fulltime job and I cannot spend as much time on this as I would like. Now, even if I do not have the time to advance at a sufficient pace to be competitive in the HAD prize, I still think this can be very rewarding for me, just for the experience. And I might get an autonomous flying robot out of this, how cool is that?
Why would I want to build a flying robot? Because it's really cool and because I can. Also, there are many possible uses of such a platform. Most companies sell those machines to the consumer/hobbyist as a toy. A few companies are trying to use them as surveillance/inspection tools, or to deliver packages. I think there are many more uses that still need to be discovered for these robots and are just waiting for the right capabilities.
Today, most flying robots are just RC planes and (heli/multi)-copters. Some constructors add features such as basic collision avoidance, follow-me and return-to-home capabilities. A few machines are close to being autonomous but only work in specific environments. Probably the best example would be the demo Astec/Intel presented at CES two years ago. Due to how the realsense technology works, this flying robot only has a very limited sensing range and works indoors only. In addition, because of its mechanical design (quad or hexacopter), it has a mediocre battery life.
Now, how can one build a flying robot that is more autonomous that what exists out there? I think the answer boils down to:
- More data about the environment. The more data the better. Quadcopters began to be a thing when IMUs got cheap and tiny. What if LIDARs got affordable and compact? What use could one make of it? Get a better knowledge of the environment!
- Better efficiency. I do not care if my flying robot can do flips or beat speed records. I'll be happy with a boring hover flight.
To achieve these goals, I have made the following design choices:
- Include a maximum of (useful) sensors onboard. I hinted at it previously, I want to have a LIDAR onboard.
- Have a system capable of processing all the data and making decisions onboard.
- Reduce the number of rotors to a minimum and use the densest power source available at this moment.
- Optimize mechanical structure to reduce weight while still protecting rotors (and people) from accidental contacts.
I'm aware that there are many hard challenges I would have to solve or get around for this to work. This pet project is about having fun, learning and trying out things, and I'm not aiming to have a "professional" solution in the end.