William Weaver, a La Salle University professor of Integrated Science, Business and Technology (ISBT), and John “Jack” Meeker, a senior ISBT major, are doing a summer research project aimed at developing an algorithm-based control process for drones, which could have implication for driver-less cars or pilotless airplanes.
“Most of the commercial flying ‘drone’ remote-control vehicles are delivered with electronics that help to stabilize their flight and performance, but are still remotely controlled by a human pilot who is using a control device, which is often a game controller,” said Weaver.
With the aid of La Salle’s Frank P. Palopoli Endowed Professorship Award, Weaver and Meeker were able to purchase “mini-drones” – they fit into the palm of your hand – and are using these six machines for their research. They also received a grant from an annual faculty and student research program sponsored by the Dean’s Office at La Salle’s School of Arts and Sciences
“Developing an autopilot capable of allowing the drone to fly autonomously is a challenging project, and one that involves the integration of control theory, artificial intelligence, and sensor fusion,” said Weaver. “All of these topics are concepts that are studied within the ISBT curriculum; however, proof-of-concept algorithms are currently deployed within a virtual environment.”
“Having actual flying hardware allows us to adjust these algorithms for real-world problems, such as interference, noisy environments, wind currents, and other unexpected challenges that are not present in a virtual system,” said Weaver. “These types of real-world challenges are those that are faced by working engineers as they develop autonomous flying and driving vehicles,” Weaver said.
With this research project, he and Meeker are attempting to add an auto-pilot flight mode to the existing manual controls. “After that has been accomplished, we will then develop the software necessary to have a swarm of the drones fly in formation and solve problems autonomously using position technology and communication protocols that we are developing.”
While drones known primarily for use in the military, Weaver says they have many civilian applications outside of combat, such as search and rescue missions in dangerous situations (a fire or a natural disaster); monitoring traffic; conducting wildlife surveys; measuring crop growth; and performing environmental studies.
Meeker, who is in the University’s Honors Program, said his interest in drones grew out of his ISBT capstone project. “I asked Dr. Weaver if he would be my mentor, and he said yes, and he suggested the field of quadcopters. We had never worked with them before, so we took this project from its birth and it has grown ever since.”
“I enjoy very much the hardware side of the project – building the Nano Quadcopters – and seeing them fly is very rewarding,” said Meeker, who is from Malvern, Pa. “We are now working on the software side of the project, and our ideas for the future are very exciting.”
La Salle University was established in 1863 through the legacy of St. John Baptist de La Salle and the Christian Brothers teaching order, which St. La Salle founded in 1680. La Salle is an educational community shaped by traditional Catholic and Lasallian values. The University is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 30 schools in the North Region and among the top 10 Catholic schools in the region.