Cranfield University researchers develop app to turn off-the-shelf drones autonomous

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Researchers at Cranfield University have developed a smartphone app which can connect with off-the-shelf drones.

It is used to send them to autonomously inspect multiple locations using coordinates received by SMS text message.

The university claims that controlling drones in this way could be useful for a variety of applications in the future including the collection of crop health data in specific locations and searching for missing persons.

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Part of the CASCADE project, its overall aim is to accelerate the exploitation of UAVs across a range of science and industry applications by automating control and facilitating communication between multiple drones so they can work on tasks together.

Alex Williamson, experimental research fellow in UAV Operations in the Centre for Autonomous and Cyber-Physical Systems at Cranfield University, said: “Autonomy is a fundamental factor in increasing the ease of adoption of UAVs for many applications while reducing operational costs. Creating this smartphone app has demonstrated that UAVs can carry out complex tasks autonomously from simple instructions.”

Adding: “We are initially focusing on demonstrating the benefits that multiple autonomous UAV operations can have within a precision agriculture environment, but alternative use cases are being considered to enable quick spin-off adoption into other applications such as search and rescue.”

The app, designed for Android phones and to work with the majority of DJI drones, receives waypoints via SMS text message, compiles the mission and sends standard off-the-shelf drones on autonomous missions with no user intervention required.

Safety features are included within the app to ensure the drone operates within legal requirements, and currently a safety pilot is required to keep the drone within line of sight throughout the mission.

The app was successfully trialled during a week of testing at a CASCADE collaboration event at Snowdonia Airfield in June.

Next steps in the project will focus on automating the control of multiple drones and technology development that allows UAV operations at extended and beyond visual line of sight.

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Alex Douglas

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