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Jul 29 2011

Introducing "Vanga"

I work for REBIOMA - a joint project of UC Berkeley's Kremen Lab and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Madagascar. We develop and apply spatial tools for biodiversity conservation in Madagascar. For example, we work with a wide array of individuals and institutions to publish high-quality biodiversity occurrence data and species distribution models on our data portal - work that has helped to identify 4 million hectares of new protected areas.

Last week, I visited the Ecosynth team to build and practice flying what we're calling "Vanga" - a Hexacopter that we will take to Madagascar in late 2011 to map forest cover and forest disturbance in the Makira and Masoala protected areas. 

We're excited about the potential for low-cost, high-frequency forest monitoring in two and three dimensions. We will start by testing the capacity of the system for producing high-resolution 2D ortho-mosaics of selected field sites. We also hope to explore the 3D modeling capabilities - this has real potential for contributing to ongoing biomass measurements, and contributing to forest carbon inventories. Finally, we plan to evaluate the potential of this system as a tool to help communities adjacent to protected areas measure and monitor their forest resources.

Jul 29 2011

Multirotors on the Colbert Report

Check out multirotors on the Colbert Report!!!  The clip starts at about 15 minutes into the program.

The researcher, Missy Cummings Associate Professor from MIT, is developing better human multirotor interfaces to help people steer the units using only a smart phone, which makes me wonder how different it is from the Parrot AR.Drone.



Seeing this video reminded me of something I noticed when flying the Hexakopters on campus with Tom Allnutt last week, see his post here.  Many people stopped and asked, ‘What is that?’, as usual, while we were out practicing in the Quad at UMBC.  But almost everyone asked if we had put a camera on it, as if that was the obvious thing to do with such a cool device.  I explained to them our research and that we do usually fly with cameras and thought to myself that something is different now then when we were practicing last year.  In September 2010 when people asked us what we were doing they never asked if we were putting cameras on the devices and thought it was an odd thing to do when we told them about our work.  Now it seems that the practice is even expected.  I hope this signals a shift in perception about autonomous vehicles as useful tools for research and for recreational aerial photography and not just greater public awareness about the other uses of such devices.

UPDATE: I've been thinking about this post and in all fairness, the researcher is discussing the use of multirotors by the armed forces.  I posted for the sake of noting the signifcance of the devices in pop-culture.

Oct 19 2010

3D and Spectral Remote Sensing with Computer Vision

Wow, what amazing progress!  I posted a few weeks ago when we were just starting to get the Hexakopters working, how excited I was when I considered that we were still flying kites just ONE YEAR AGO!  Now it is becoming a reality that the Mikrokopters can really move this interdisciplinary research fusion of ecological remote sensing and computer vision into a reliable system for making 3D, spectral color measurements of ecosystem vegetation for measuring biomass and species diversity.  

There is definitely a lot to learn about the process, but we have got the flying down pretty well for data collection.  The video here is of me flying the Hexa up through a large gap in the canopy at the Knoll site at UMBC.  This is an invaluable capability of this system (and its pilot!) that makes it possible to fly sites like the Knoll and SERC, where it is not possible to be centrally located in a large open clearing.  

DRAFT: comparison at HR sites, seasons

Oct 07 2010

Back in the air and doing great!

One week after a nasty crash at one of our suburban forest study sites, we are back in the air and *hopefully* back on track for a great collection of vegetation dynamics this month.

More on the crash and the rebuild on the Weekly are forthcoming, the team has mid-terms right now, but I wanted to post about the recovery and success today.  We had two Hexas on order and they arrived on Thursday of last week.  Nisarg and Garrett put in the time this past weekend to get the two new birds up and running and we had a few great tests in a parking garage and in an empty gymnasium, inside because of a cold autumn rain.

On Monday we calibrated the receivers to the units and everything appeared ready for great flights once the weather broke.  The forecast called for rain until Thursday and then becoming beautiful.  The forecast for today included rain but the morning and midday had light winds and mostly overcast skies so we decided to go for it.  I knew the gear was ready and I pulled out some of my new pre-flight checklists to prepare the field kit.  Garrett showed up and helped with the packing while I prepped the official flight path in ArcGIS.

Here is the breakdown of field work by time:

  • 10:30 – Arrive at site and unload (leave note on car begging not to be ticketed)
  • 11:30 – All markers are placed with position recorded in GPS
  • 12:00 – Back to site and ready to go after realizing I left camera battery in lab
  • 12:05 – Garrett has arrived and we are powering up Hexa
  • 12:30 – Updated and verified Mikrotool settings, unit has GPS lock, ready to go…
  • 12:33 – Take off!
  • 12:48 – Jonathan grabs Hexa as it makes its descent. Touchdown.
  • 13:05 – Gear is packed up; Depart site
  • 13:30 – All gear has been unloaded and we are back in lab downloading data

In sum, about 2 hours on-site for what appears to be a perfect 15 minute data acquisition.  I expect that we can take off at least one hour from this as we get better at making acquisitions.  A Photosynth of the photos is running now and I will update with a link when it is ready.  I have also attached below the KML file of the track downloaded from the MicroSD card on board the Hexa’s navigation control board.

HR_20101006_Mikrokopter_GPS_telemetry.KML (49.45 kb)

UPDATE: The Photosynth run is finished, http://photosynth.net/view.aspx?cid=011796ed-ed9e-43d5-bc0a-f5a80bcae7d6 . This was based off of every other photo in the set, amazing.  I can't wait to get some seasonal change in the canopy, it will look beautiful.


Sep 20 2010

The Mikrokopter Lives!

My, how far we’ve come! 

Just about one year ago I was out flying my kite almost everyday to get coverage over our two study sites on the UMBC campus.  Over this past week we have made a huge step forward, a systematic ‘test’ flight with the Mikrokopter Hexacopter over the Herbert Run forests.

Flying the large delta conyne kites (like the one shown here, image credit Into The Wind Kites http://www.intothewind.com/) was fun and got the camera in the air, but it was very hard to control both the altitude of the camera and its position over the forest.  This meant it was very difficult to test flight plans, or even begin to get at understanding the best flight plan strategy for use with computer vision.

Over the past summer we worked with several students from the UMBC GES and MECHE departments and a visiting intern from Clark University (thanks Evan, Nisarg, Garrett, and Noam) with the goal of using hobbyist aircraft to carry the cameras.  We moved away from using the Canon CHDK camera setup, instead using high-speed (~2 photos / sec) cameras with continuous shooting modes to collect huge numbers of overlapping photos.  We had a lot of promising flights and successes with the hobbyist aircraft, the Slow Sticks and Easy Stars.  But we also had a lot of technical challenges and crashes that made us question the sustainability and repeatability of the ultra-cheap systems for our scientific research and technological development stage.

Enter the Mikrokopter Hexacopter.  The Mikrokopter line of remote controlled aircraft offers precision control and GPS navigation.  Last Friday we made our first demonstration of the GPS-assisted navigation over the Herbert Run site.  The Photosynth generated from those photos is here, http://bit.ly/bqAhzL, and while it looks similar to the rest of our aerial synths, it is generated with photos taken along a pre-designated path at a constant altitude.  Remarkable!

I expect things to progress quickly this fall (that dissertation is calling) and we have set up another blog for weekly progress about the nitty-gritty of Ecosynth research, http://ecotope.org/ecosynth/blog/.  I will continue working with this blog as a reference for the methods and research progress and the ‘weekly’ should be a place to go for latest in weekly goings-on in the Ecosynth lab.

Thanks team, we could not have gotten here without all of your hard work.