Alumnus develops easy-to-use UAVs

4 years ago

    Sergei Lupashin (’01) has what some may consider an unusual use for a retractable dog leash.
   There’s no puppy to be found on the end of the leash. What you will find is a Fotokite, an unmanned aerial vehicle that has the opportunity to change how the world views news events, disasters, large celebrations and other events.
   The Fotokite is a quadrocopter, a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that has four small motors and propellers that help lift the vehicle into the air. The idea for the Fotokite grew out of Lupashin’s research at Cornell University in New York as well as doctoral and postdoctoral research at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.
   The Fotokite is attached to a tether, in this case a retractable dog leash that allows the user to guide the UAV without the use of a remote control. There is a small camera mounted to the bottom of the vehicle that is connected to a video transmitter that allows images to be sent directly to a computer or other device to broadcast the live video.
   “It’s kind of like a flying smartphone,” Lupashin said during a interview from the company’s research office in Zurich. “It has all the same sensors, in particular the inertial sensors. All the magic happens in how those sensors are used. So the quadrocopter, the Fotokite, can interpret that data from the sensors and where it is relative to you so it can stay in the same spot or do some other intelligent behavior.”
   The sensors allow the Fotokite to move with its user without being directed to a certain spot by other means. One of the best examples of this can be seen on Lupashin’s YouTube channel. In one video, a Fotokite is given to a person on a sled. The sledder travels down a path with the Fotokite following behind. The distance between the Fotokite and the sled remains the same throughout the ride as does the Fotokite’s altitude.
   Two videos on Fotokite’s YouTube channel offer extended views of the vehicle’s capabilities. In one scene filmed at the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a person on bicycle guides the UAV around the festival, and again it maintains its distance and altitude. Another clip shows scenes from the Fotokite as it travels with a guide riding on a truck around the festival.
   The videos of the Burning Man festival are examples of what role Lupashin, his cofounder James Rapoport and their team members think Fotokite can play in covering events. More than 60,000 people attend the weeklong festival each year, and the Fotokite was able to provide some unique views.
   Lupashin and the Fotokite team envision the vehicle being a useful tool for journalists to use when covering events, breaking news, demonstrations and other newsworthy activities. They also see a use for the device by emergency workers during disasters and accidents. Archaeologists could use it to document their digs.
   One event in particular served as an inspiration for the development of the Fotokite. In December 2011, thousands participated in a protest against the government and elections in Moscow.
   A group of Russian UAV pilots filmed the protests, and they had to wear orange vests to let people know to stay back while they were flying the remote-controlled vehicles, according to a Wired article about Lupashin and Fotokite. The footage provided visual documentation of the size of the protests, but the remote-controlled UAVs weren’t feasible. For safety reasons, the pilots were essentially unable to move through the crowd.
   “It’s kind of the original inspiration for a problem that needed solving,” Lupashin said. “There’s some recent perspective that’s really eye-opening, but essentially unless you’re the government, it’s inaccessible, especially if it’s crowded or a demonstration.
   “It’s easy to develop technology, but it’s difficult to develop solutions. By focusing on this, and also like (the) Fukushima (Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 that was caused by a tsunami) to some extent, it helps to ground yourself in terms of what are you actually solving. In Fukashima, they couldn’t get that perspective for months.
   “In a way, it felt like a failure of robotics. The tools that are developed for those areas are quite complicated. People have to be very proficient in operating (remote control UAVs), they’re very expensive, (and) they’re never in the right place. So we set out to create something much more versatile. The idea is if a 5-year-old can use a Fotokite to take a picture of their dog then maybe a journalist could use it in a real situation or a firefighter.”
Changing perspectives
   One of the challenges Fotokite faces is changing people’s perspectives of UAVs. Quite often the word drone is used to describe the vehicles. However, that word has developed a negative connotation in some circles, particularly as unmanned drones are used in military missions.
   “I’m not going to use the d-word,” Lupashin said with a chuckle and smile. He uses the term aerial robotics to describe his work with the quadrocopters. His team works hard to differentiate the Fotokite from the common perception of a drone. Instead of focusing on the technology itself, they focus on what it does and the purpose it can serve.
   “It’s too bad that all of these devices get swamped into this one big category. It’s kind of like calling bulldozers tanks. It’s good to show that we have something different. Highlighting it’s not a drone helps in that story because you end up explaining what precisely is different,” he said.
   The biggest difference being that there is a physical connection to the operator. It lets those who may see the Fotokite flying know exactly who is using it and that it is under control.
   “Everyone knows you’re responsible for this vehicle. This machine is being operated by this person. There’s no ambiguity,” he said.
   Lupashin said it helps to actually show people the Fotokite in use, thus the Burning Man trip was a good experience. Trade shows and conferences, such as the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference at the Engelberg Center on Innovation Law and Policy at New York University last year, provide additional opportunities.
   At these demonstrations, Lupashin deploys a Fotokite to show how easy it is to operate the vehicles. They are light, compact and one can fit in a case about the size of a briefcase.
   Perhaps the biggest event at which Lupashin has had the opportunity to discuss Fotokite was the TED2014 Conference held in Vancouver, Canada, in March. Speakers share new ideas across a wide range of topics, including technology, entertainment and design. This was the 30th anniversary TED conference.
   Lupashin was named a TED Fellow for the 2014 conference. The application process is open to anyone in the world in any profession. Only 21 were selected out of the more than a thousand who applied, he said. His selection was a fantastic moment not only for Lupashin but for the whole Fotokite operation as well. He said that when you’re involved in the startup of a small company such as Fotokite there can be a lot of bad moments, but other times there can be some really high moments. This was one of the high moments for the company and for Lupashin personally.
   “It’s a really cool group of people, like artists, photographers, political figures, technical people like myself,” he said.
   Each fellow makes a presentation at the conference. The fellows had weekly classes that began three or four months before the conference that covered topics to help them prepare for their presentation.
   Lupashin took the opportunity to launch three Fotokites at once during his presentation.
   “I tried to really hammer down the message of how accessible and easy to use they are. An operator with a regular remote-controlled vehicle wouldn’t have been able to do that,” he said.
   Lupashin said the conference was a good place to figure out if an idea is worth pursuing. He said it was an amazing experience that not only resulted in a high-level exposure for Fotokite but was a very educational experience for him as well. Hearing all of the other speakers in an environment where everyone loves to discuss their ideas was a fantastic opportunity, he said.
   Lupashin described his time at ASMSA in a similar fashion. He said one of the strengths of the school is to bring together really interesting people.
   Born in Russia, he moved to Arkansas from New Jersey once his parents took jobs at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. While at the school, he made many friends, including a few with whom he created a computer science club.
   The club offered them the opportunity to go to various competitions, including ones where they competed against colleges.
“I think that really brought us together and pushed me and others to really learn. I can’t repeat this enough, just having really interesting people around, some of which were really curious and really pushed themselves to learn (was one of his most valuable experiences at ASMSA),” he said.

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