Following a successful demo at the Máxima Medical Center in the
Netherlands, a team of young students at TU Eindhoven (TU/e) seem on course
to develop the world’s first autonomous indoor drone – project
name ‘Blue Jay Eindhoven’. The dream is to see their drone
support healthcare professionals across their work. This is largely
uncharted territory, both in drone technology and healthcare and here the
students and some of the drone experts championing their groundbreaking work
discuss the technological challenges the project faces.
“Nowadays, making a remote drone is easy,” says Professor
Maarten Steinbuch, head of the High Tech Systems Center at TU/e. “But a
drone that’s genuinely autonomous in a confined 3D space needs smart
electronics and the capacity to respond fast to what’s happening around
it. For example, if someone in the room suddenly stands up, the drone has
about 50 milliseconds to see that movement and respond appropriately.
It’s a huge challenge.” And just one of many.
The drone’s close proximity to people also throws up safety issues,
especially when it’s elderly and sick people. One revolutionary design
feature of the Blue Jay is the cage frame and rotors casing, which shield the
mechanism and ensure that, in normal activity, a user’s hand
won’t come into contact with any moving parts. Important when the
blades are doing some 12,000 rpm. Let a finger stray in there and
you’ll be adding to a hospital’s workload, not reducing it!
Meanwhile, to address a more immediate safety problem during development, the
team has erected a network of steel cables in the Blue Jay workspace so the
drone can’t ‘escape’. “The last thing we need is a
rogue drone loose on campus. Especially one that can think for itself!”
jokes Rens Nieuwenhuizen, mechanical engineering student and one of the
team’s current full-time members.
The drone’s flight time is currently about 6 minutes. That may not seem
long, but as the team have learnt, product development is all about weighing
up priorities. “We need to balance time in flight against the extra
(rechargeable) batteries that requires,” explains Rens. “Extra
batteries make it heavier, requiring more thrust, which in turn make the drone
noisier.” And as Maarten points out, “No one wants a noisy
indoor drone, especially in a hospital.”
Another rule of product development is keeping things simple. “We were
having real problems with vibration,” explains electrical engineering
student, Iris Huijben, another full-time team member. “Initially we
thought the flight controller wasn’t tuned well enough, then realized
it was simply the legs vibrating too much. We solved the problem by using
good-old duct tape to stabilize the structure.”
Simple, too, is the modular design, which means Blue Jay can be taken apart
and put together again. And most components, including the inner frame, legs
and gripper, are 3D-printed, so any broken parts can be quickly replaced.
The students say Blue Jay isn’t really as ‘smart’ as they
aim for yet, but the plan is to increase its artificial intelligence. For
example, through more sensors in the ring, and additional algorithms for
mapping and for learning from its environment. But even now, Blue Jay’s
no dummy: playing games, it can decide its next move for itself. And last year
in its first ‘student job’, working as the world’s
original drone waiter in a pop-up student café on campus, Blue Jay used
image processing to recognize items customers pointed to on the menu.
Another innovative aspect of the drone is its humanizing ‘face’,
which has different expressions, for example, looking happy if it wins a game,
sad if it loses. But even aesthetics considerations go hand-in-hand with
technical ones. “For the face,” says Iris, “we created
some nice white fabric that framed the eyes much better than now. But the
fabric covered open areas, causing the drone to vibrate and drop in
flight.” The team are still working on how to use the fabric to create
a more realistic face without compromising the flight.
Hovering above the shoulders of giants
Talented though they are, the Blue Jay team couldn’t do it without
world class support. Their base, TU/e, has a global reputation in robotics
— indeed Maarten Steinbuch’s team are reigning Robot Soccer
World Champions! — and is a hub of the region’s rich technology
legacy, which includes global tech leaders like Philips, ASML and NXP, that
makes Eindhoven a serious rival to Silicon Valley.
With a strong track record in car connectivity and UAVs, project partner NXP
is particularly closely involved with Blue Jay. “In the
project’s first year, for example,” recalls Iris, “we
kept getting signal interference and everyone had to turn off their mobiles
during testing. But using NXP’s technology, interference is no longer a
problem.” Ties van Loon, the project’s leader, concurs.
“It’s great being able to work directly with NXP colleagues.
Their expertise and experience are invaluable. Sometimes the answer’s
something simple we’ve overlooked. But having worked in this field for
years, they spot it quickly.”
Looking forward, Drone Programs Technical Lead at NXP, Iain Galloway, is
excited about the many ways his company’s technology can continue to
benefit Blue Jay. “Take security. If, for example, a drone is
delivering medication, you need to know it’s the right drone going to
the right nurse or patient. Using a challenge-response encrypted communication
exchange between recipient and drone provides a secure chain of custody
similar to Internet banking.” No bad thing, when of course delivering
prescribed drugs to the wrong person could have consequences way beyond just
delivering the wrong groceries.
“When we saw the drone café in the news last year, we immediately
saw value in a collaboration” says NXP’s Gino Knubben.
“But NXP is learning a lot from Blue Jay, too. Drones, robotics,
autonomous, flight controllers, car connectivity… they’re all
very closely interrelated. And progress on one front can help on all many
Martijn is based in NXP’s Eindhoven headquarters where he’s been an integral member
of NXP’s corporate communications team since 2007. He spearheads internal and
external PR and communications initiatives, as well as NXP corporate sponsorships
with university partners and policymakers.