The story behind MIT’s drone ‘Daksha’
By Sruthisagar Yamunan | Published: 21st November 2012 08:34 AM |
It swooped in and helped the police in Madurai in the now infamous illegal granite-mining scandal. In Tiruvannamalai, it is poised to aid the cops manage swelling crowds on Karthigai deepam. Daksha, the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) developed by professors and a group of research scholars at the Madras Institute of Technology (MIT), might fool you with its simple design. But the drone certainly packs a punch and the story of its making is one of perseverance and dedication.
Drones have been in the news for a while now. Perhaps the most wide-known utility of these vehicles is in the domain of the military. Remember the Abbottabad strike which killed Osama Bin Laden? The story goes that the enclosure where the terrorist was holed up was surveyed by drones of the US military for months, before the launch of the operation that killed him.
But the chaps at MIT seem to have mastered the type of small drones that could be deployed for civilian purposes.
Google Daksha and you would find that this prototype is all over the Internet for its achievements. Conceptualised six years ago by the faculty and a set of dedicated doctorate scholars of the Aerospace Engineering Department at the MIT, the project took off at the International Drone Olympics, otherwise called the UAV Forge, in 2011 following hours and hours of research work.
K Senthil Kumar, associate professor at the department, said that while they were in the process of developing the design for the small unmanned vehicle, the team came across the news about a drone competition being organised by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the organisation created by the US government to ensure the country stayed ahead of its enemies in war technology.
The website of UAV throws light on how tough the competition was structured. With participants from 152 countries, it had three highly difficult levels that tested the durability as well as the innovation brought to the table by the teams. In Milestone 1, the first stage, the teams were elaborated on the challenge for the small drone they were developing. The teams were asked to submit a 60-second concept video to advertise their skills, design sketches, vehicle components, algorithm behaviors and other such technical details.
The challenge involved flying the drone on a 5 km stretch and landing it on a tiny structure and then transmitting the video back to the ground station. The difficulty here was the fact that once the drone crosses the 300-metre distance, it vanishes from visibility. From then on, the skill of the team in utilising onboard technology to cover the remaining distance solely decides the success of the drone.
“We were ranked 38 at this stage. In the next milestone though, we upped our status to rank two,” recalls Professor Senthil Kumar. In the second stage, the website says, “Competing teams are asked to demonstrate the early flight behaviors and capabilities of their air vehicle system. They may also showcase other innovative and creative aspects of their air vehicle system design and performance.” This is when the drone was really built and the competition slid from the concept to the implementation stage.
The reason for such a vast improvement in stage two was because the team was able to materialise in full the concept they had submitted in the first stage. “Many other teams came up extravagant ideas which really was not possible to implement,” pointed out the professor.
Following this, the team was asked to do an hour-long live demonstration of their vehicle which was monitored by experts from the US via satellite. This, the third Milestone, in fact, happened on the campus of Anna University in Guindy. To the amazement of the group, the demonstration went smoothly and they topped the list of 12 teams which were shortlisted after this stage and called to Fort Stewart in Georgia Atlanta, an army installation.
The terrain in which the team was asked to operate the drone in Fort Stewart was challenging to say the least. “We took only one model with us whereas others had five to six spare ones. Our drone crashed mid flight because the pine tress, some 100 feet in height, blocked signals that operated the drone,” he recalled. The team then set right the crashed drone in a matter of hours, impressing the judges. In the meantime, they also made a minor tweak to the design which at last helped them win the competition.
“The antennae used to guide the drone was always placed on the ground. However, given the situation, we decided to install it in the aircraft itself. We loitered on the streets of the US to find the required hardware to make this change,” Senthil Kumar said.
This transformation ensured that Daksha was the only drone that completed the task of flying 5 km, landing on the building and transmitting the video. None of the other teams, some hailing from world-famous universities, could accomplish this task. The team was then awarded medals for accomplishment and appreciated by former President APJ Abdul Kalam for their feat.
When this information reached the Madurai administration, it decided to utilise the drone to surveying the illegal granite mines. The police here then decided to see if the drone could be used in crowd control, following which the team was asked to demonstrate it in Tiruvannamalai.
Sources in the police said that the current model was able to fly for 40 minutes at a stretch. “The team is looking for more funds that could help them upgrade the vehicle. We hope the agencies take notice of this and help such projects,” said a senior police official. The team though said that the idea was now to further work on the design, which they hope would one day reduce direct deployment of forces in complex terrains.