Quick tip – don’t be surprised to find that an intense-looking college student is behind the next handy Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) you find mention of in the newspapers. From drones to monitor windmills to carrying GPS payloads for location-tracking, students’ code-crunching and controller design has enabled drones to take flight and soar far above recreation.
So how are students taking to the skies? Bharat Mathur, a second year Mechatronics student who leads SRM’s nascent 1.5-year-old UAV team, speaks passionately about the work done by his 16-member research team, which has so far built six drones, with three more in the pipeline. “This is technology that can solve numerous army and civilian problems. Most drones have a common platform on which you can develop mission-specific customizations,” he says.
The payloads too are different. Different types of cameras and sensors like SONAR can be mounted on them. And to piece together a drone here, students from several departments like Mechatronics, Mechanical, ECE, EEE and so on need to put their heads together, as the requirements are inter-disciplinary – embedded systems, image processing, and others. This is also one of the reasons why there is so much interest in the student community, according to Dr K Senthil Kumar from MIT, a drone-acharya for several researchers. “Students from various fields can take this up. Before, they were concentrating more on IT. Now, fields like this offer them an opportunity to work on core subjects,” he points out.
The vibrant student community is now thriving, and problems identified and their solutions are now shared through academic papers and other channels. These are later picked up by researchers at drone manufacturing companies, and they can implement it, says Ganeshram N, a PhD student at IIT Madras.
Though it’s a good thing that interest is growing in the student community, they need to ensure that the machines are based on sound control theory and mathematics, opines Srinath Mallikarjunan, who runs ‘Unmanned System’, a drone design company with clients as big as the US Navy. There is this culture of “flash and fly” among some students. “The electronics are relatively cheap ($500-1,000) and there are n-number of tutorials available on the net about how to put the parts together. There are also ready-made basic programmes to flash on the drone and fly it. The value addition comes only when they account for problems like compensating for wind and implementing proper safety features – you don’t want it to plonk down on someone’s head if it fails,” he points out.
However, student researchers Express spoke to seem to be well-versed in such aspects. Ganeshram gives the breakdown. “The drones are first tested in a controlled laboratory environment. They are strapped down to desks and tested in what is called ‘Hardware In Loop’ – the conditions of flight are emulated. Only when it clears all these tests is it ready for out-of-lab flights,” says the IIT researcher from the Department of Engineering Design. “We can programme the drone to fly back if it goes beyond a certain range, or even land on the spot,” chips in Bharat.
With the DGCA coming up with interim measures in October last to stop all drone-flying in civilian airspace till they come up with final regulations, the student community has indeed taken a hit. The practical applications can’t be tested fully, and there is only so much a laboratory environment can reflect real-time flying parameters like weather and temperature.
“If you want to let the industry flourish, you need to let the research be carried out properly,” opines Bharat, who says testing drones in a 10-foot high room is definitely not doing any good for him and his team. However, those like Ganeshram see a positive side. “It’s only correct that the measures are in place. Just like how for a two-wheeler, there is getting a license and then vehicle registration, it should be the case here too – people should be trained to fly them in the proper manner,” he points out.
“In fact, drones like the DJI Phantom – the most widely seen brand in India – have built in intelligence features. They will not work in no-fly zones,” he says. He observes that flyers should be sensitive to people around and that every drone should have a traceable number. He is confident that the DGCA will come up with measures to allow regulated drone flight. “Our professor has told us not to fly drones till the final measures are out. In the meantime, we will concentrate on the other aspects of research,” he says.