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W&L's R.E. Scholars Design Software for Surveillance Drones

In a war zone, an abandoned building may be filled with hidden hazards. Bombs. Booby traps. Snipers. Thanks to software designed by Washington and Lee computer science professor Simon Levy and his summer research students, American soldiers may soon be detecting these dangers using miniature surveillance drones.

Levy and his students — junior Suraj Bajracharya and sophomore Bipeen Acharya, both from Nepal, and junior Olivier Mahame, of Rwanda — are working with Advanced Aerials, a Navy contractor, to develop the software, which will be embedded on a wrist-mounted controller. Their program would allow soldiers to tap out simple commands on the controller’s touchscreen.

“Imagine a scenario where they’re trying to figure out what’s in a particular building, and they don’t want to run in there. There may be explosive ordnance…or they may be under attack,” explained Levy. “So the idea is, you can take this out of a pack and toss it in the building and have it flying around looking for things, with cameras on it.” The cameras would record a live feed of the building’s interior.

Levy and Advanced Aerials, a VTOL UAV rapid prototyping company north of Charlottesville, will demo the software for the Navy this fall. The project offers Levy’s students a unique research opportunity because they are building a commercially viable product. “There’s actually a customer who wants this technology,” said Levy.

The students, all Robert E. Lee scholars, spent the first part of the summer coding commands for the drone. Their goal? To keep the coding as clean and simple as possible. They also wanted to create a visually appealing touchscreen.

Levy’s students started coding as soon as the project began. This would not have been possible a few years ago, said Levy. Until recently, the only small computing devices available were micro-controllers. These special-purpose computers have their own language and limitations, and the students would have needed time to learn their computer’s particular platform.

Programming today is much simpler. “You can get an entire computer that’s already good to go, with programming on board. The students don’t have to learn much beyond what they’ve already learned in their computer science courses,” said Levy.

Technology is also more affordable than it was in the past. “We’re currently working with what’s called commercial, off-the-shelf technology,” said Levy. “Most of this stuff costs between $20 and $200. It’s very inexpensive technology. You can buy it at Amazon or some supplier online. I’m just using, basically, little $20 webcams for this.”

According to Levy, the drones and controllers to be used in the demo are supposed to be easily portable and disposable. Part of the challenge for the students was to keep the coding clean and efficient. Levy reviewed their work daily to correct mistakes. “We would be doing it the long way, and he would come in and tell us to use a function,” said Acharya. These functions, or shortcuts, removed repetitive codes and kept the program lean.

The team’s software is highly adaptable and can be embedded in a variety of small, open-source computing devices that operate on a Linux platform, from BeagleBoard to Raspberry Pi to Gumstix. “The code we write for one of the devices can work on any of the other devices,” said Bajracharya. They decided not to design an iPhone-ready program because the Apple device requires a specialized code not easily adaptable to other platforms.

A prototype drone was unavailable in June, so the team tested commands on a server that acted as a substitute for the actual robot. Levy will test the software on a drone later this summer. In September, Levy and the head of Advanced Aerials, Bert Wagner, will demo the device for the Navy. “If that works out, we’ll have a bigger product due a year out from that,” said Levy.

The students agreed that they learned a lot about programming. “It made me get more interested in programming because I hadn’t worked with designing things graphically as an interface,” said Mahame. He also enjoyed “doing the coding to connect to the graphical user interface and making it more dynamic. I think this project was really cool.”

Gaining hands-on experience with a high-level commercial project was another benefit for his research assistants, said Levy.  “You can come to a place like W&L and get some really interesting projects under your belt very quickly,” said Levy. “This industry is really cooking. I know they won’t have any trouble finding a job or going to grad school.”

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L

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Jeffery G. Hanna
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