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Linux-based hexacopter avoids obstacles using Intel RealSense

Jan 12, 2015 — by Eric Brown — 4,529 views

Ascending Technologies demoed an enhanced “AscTec Firefly” hexacopter, running Ubuntu on Intel-based computers and featuring six Intel RealSense 3D cameras.

One of the coolest demos at CES 2015 was the AscTec Firefly drone demo at Intel’s big IoT extravaganza. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich joined several members of the Ascending Technologies team to play a drone version of Pong in which they paddled the hexacopter away by simply by moving toward it. The trick is enabled by the hexacopter’s six Intel Realsense 3D depth cameras combined with advanced inertial sensor and fusion algorithms running on an onboard Ubuntu Linux driven computer.

The obstacle-avoiding unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) also navigated an obstacle course, and video footage showed it flying through a forest (see YouTube video farther below). The enhanced Firefly is the most advanced UAV yet from the Germany-based company, and is designed for commercial drone applications.

AscTec Fire at CES 2015 keynote
(click image to enlarge)

According to a report from The Verge, the Pong playing drone was not the standard, “research line” Firefly model (see farther below), but an enhanced version fitted with the RealSense cameras and a newly announced Trinity autopilot designed to integrate the RealSense cameras.

Trinity will be available on the company’s top-of-the-line professional AscTec Falcon 8 UAV, pictured below. The autopilot computer does not use the older Core and Atom processors found on the existing Firefly, says The Verge. Instead, it uses a custom PCI-Express interface board equipped with one of the latest quad-core Intel Atoms. The Ubuntu-equipped computer “ran an algorithmic chain, processing depth information from six cameras, performing real-time sensor data fusion and state estimation, near-field obstacle avoidance, and path planning navigation,” says the story.

AscTec Falcon 8 in flight
(click image to enlarge)

According to the Ascending Technologies website, the Trinity autopilot is the first multi-rotor autopilot with up three levels of redundancy. It’s unclear when and if the technology will be formally launched with the company’s other drones, including the Firefly.

At CES, Intel and Ascending Technologies announced a collaboration agreement to work on obstacle avoidance technology similar to what was demonstrated onstage. The avoidance technology will “open entirely new fields of drone applications such as automatic delivery of goods or emergency medication,” says Ascending Technologies. More to the point, as The Verge and Wired suggests, this kind of technology could be key to goosing the FAA to act more quickly to legalize commercial drone use in the U.S., and without the need for excessive safety regulations.

Intel’s RealSense depth-sensing cameras will go on sale later this year, but the SDK is available now. The camera module weighs as little as 8 grams and is less than 4mm thick — a key consideration in choosing it for its drones, said Ascending Technologies.

Support for the RealSense cameras is integrated with Intel’s newly announced, 14nm 5th Gen Core (“Broadwell”) and “Cherry Trail” Atom processors. The camera is also built into Dell’s Venue 8 7000 tablet announced this week, which looks like the slickest Android product Dell has unveiled to date. The 6mm thick tablet runs Android 5.0 on an Intel Atom Z3500 processor and offers an 8.4-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 display.

The Verge quotes 3DRobotics CEO Chris Anderson as saying: “So between Qualcomm’s work on real-time vision built into their Snapdragon program and Intel’s work on RealSense vision, which is a standalone chip, those things are now going to be driving next year’s drones, and they are going to be available at a cost and speed that we, the drone industry, could never have done on our own.”

AscTec Firefly

The current version of the AscTec Firefly hexacopter is the most advanced of Ascending Technologies’s research line of UAVs, which also include AscTec Pelican and Hummingboard models.

AscTec Firefly
(click image to enlarge)

The autonomous 1.6-kilogram, 60.5 x 66.5 x 16.5cm UAV has 8-inch propellers, and allows redundant propulsion with controlled flight using only five rotors. The hexacopter offers GPS, 2.4 GHz XBee link, and optional WiFi and LiDAR.

Powered by six 100W motors, the Firefly can carry up to 600 grams with a maximum airspeed of 15m/s. With its 4900mAh battery, it can travel 22 minutes without payload or 12 to 14 minutes with payload. A variety of camera mounts are available.

The UAV’s “frame-in-frame” design decouples the fixed connection of payload and IMU from the vibration-inducing motors, says Ascending Technologies. This is said to raise the quality of the sensor and camera data and prevent dynamic misalignments.

The Firefly provides a choice of two separately available, Ubuntu-driven autopilot computers: the high-end Mastermind and the super-light AtomBoard. The Mastermind offers a choice of two Ivy Bridge 3rd Gen Core processors, including the quad-core i7-3612QE, as well as a Core2Duo and an Atom D510.

AscTec Mastermind (left) and AtomBoard autopilot computers
(click images to enlarge)

The Mastermind autopilot lets you simultaneously integrated data via FireWire, GbE, and USB 2.0 and 3.0 connections, store it on mSATA, SATA, microSD, and CFast cards, and “share your results via a serial or WiFi connection,” says Ascending Technologies. Ubuntu Linux with all necessary drivers is pre-installed, and a VGA port is available for display. (Full specs may be found .)

The lower-end, but lighter weight Atomboard, which is the only option on the lightweight AscTec Pelican, uses the original, circa-2008 Atom N530 processor. It similarly ships with Ubuntu. (Full specs on the Atomboard are found here.)

The videos below demonstrate an AscTec drone equipped with Intel’s RealSense 3D navigating in a forest, and what someone like Jim Parsons can make it do on a PC.

Demo of RealSense 3D sensing technology on an AscTec Firefly drone

Jim Parsons encounters RealSense in Intel’s lab

Further information

More information on the Ascending Technologies UAVs may be found at the AscTec website.

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