Aerial Robotics is the field of developing flying drones which could be applied in surveillance, product deliveries, agriculture and in reaching otherwise inaccessible sites to take images and collect information. Working on this far-reaching technology, Aerial Robotics Kharagpur(ARK) is aimed towards research and its implementation in building autonomous aerial vehicles. It is an initiative of the Centre for Excellence in Robotics funded by the Sponsored Research and Industrial Consultancy (SRIC) facility of IITKGP.
The aerial robotics team currently has developed six drones- Dove, Albatross(I & II), Butterfly, AR Drone, Canary(I &II) and Eagle.
ARK came into being from a ‘dream-a-bot’ idea proposed to TRS in Spring 2012 in which sufficiently large-scale robotics project ideas were submitted and the suggestion of a quadrotor was selected to be funded by TRS. In 2013, some members of TRS started “the quadrotor project” independently, getting just the basic things to make it fly autonomously with the help of TRS resources. They realised early on that a proper objective was needed to keep the team motivated which was when they came across International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC), a daring aspiration for a team that was just starting out.
For nearly 1.5 years, the students only worked out of their hostel rooms with no proper funding. The establishment of Centre for Excellence in Robotics (CFER) in 2014 provided them with an opportunity to get funding. Aditya Agarwal presented their idea of “the quadrotor project” to a committee of Deans and Professors which was accepted in December of 2014 with Prof. Jayanta Mukhopadhyay of the Department of CSE and Prof. D.K.Pratihar of Department of Mechanical Engineering becoming their mentors. So officially in early 2015, ARK was born. This was also the time when the new mission IARC (mission 7) was announced in which the team participated under the leadership of Soumyadeep Mukherjee in 2016.
Working towards IARC
ARK focusses mainly on IARC which is the longest running collegiate aerial robotics tournament in the world. The problem statement of IARC is basically unsolvable at the time it is announced and remains unchanged for years until it is solved, and the robotic behaviour required is impossible even by the most sophisticated military robot standards. Yet, the team that was just born ventured to participate in IARC, gaining experience from meeting all the different teams for the very first time last year in the competition’s 25th edition. ARK participated with their hexacopter ‘Eagle’ and won ‘The Best Team Cooperation Award’.
The mission or the problem statement of last year, which continued on to this year, required the competitors to make an autonomous aerial vehicle which could navigate in a GPS-denied environment and manipulate ground robots while also avoiding moving obstacles and thus Artificial Intelligence also had to be tackled with, which was relatively unexplored at that time. Announced in 2015, the problem statement put ARK in a better position as the team caught up with other international teams who had only a year of head start. The novelty and complexity resulted in the problem remaining unsolved this year which is not surprising, given that the last mission also went on for six years.
ARK hopes and aims to complete ‘IARC Mission 7A’ and finish in the top 3 at the Asia Pacific venue next year. After that, a much more challenging Mission 7B will await them in which quadrotors from winners of Mission 7A will be pitted in a head to head competition.
ARK has grown from a tiny team of 3-10 people, who were mostly from 2015 and 2016 batches of TRS before getting funding from CFER, to 20 to 30 people now who are divided into Software and Controls Teams. The software team is responsible for developing algorithms in computer vision including localization, object detection, tracking, path planning and 3D obstacle avoidance along with artificial intelligence algorithms for exploration and herding, while the controls team works towards the smooth motion of the aerial robot in space attaining the desired speed and orientation while avoiding obstacles.
The group collaborated with agriculture department of IIT Kharagpur for projects related to farm surveys. Since IARC, ARK has received requests for collaboration from students in the campus as well as departments and other organisations. Some collaborations on government-sponsored projects are also in the planning phase.
ARK also works in collaboration with Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics to improve the Robot Operating Systems framework Telekyb developed by its Autonomous Robotics and Human-Machine Systems Lab.
For more information on ARK, you can visit their blog by clicking here.