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Remote flying takes off at UC

Remote flying takes off at UC

24 September 2014

Two UC academics have designed a programme that allows third-year engineering students to fly model helicopters remotely from any computer in the world.

Dr Steve Weddell and Professor Philip Bones (Electrical and Computer Engineering), with the assistance of three technical staff, have created a “heli lab” with three model helicopters that are flown remotely when students write the correct software code and upload it through a browser on the internet.

Dr Weddell, who set up the programme after receiving a $5000 UC Teaching Development Grant, said it was the first of its kind in New Zealand and has been created using software designed by the University of Technology in Sydney.

“The student’s code, if written correctly, controls the model helicopters to take off, hover, descend, land and also turn. The helicopters are in a remote lab on campus and they are attached to a stand,” he said.

“But what is challenging about this is that they need to write a control algorithm that will provide a reasonably precise height as well as turn angle. The best thing about this is students can potentially do this anywhere, even if they were overseas they could log in and operate the devices remotely via the internet.”

Dr Weddell said the team hoped to boost the number of helicopters to six by the start of next year.

“The students can watch the helicopter’s movements through the cameras set up in the lab, which allow them to see in real time if their software is working correctly. I think it gives another dimension to their learning, which they clearly enjoyed. The students might write an algorithm that works on one helicopter, but it should work on all three so they learn that the hard way,” he said.

Professor Bones said the students purchase a low-cost microcomputer development board, or single board computer, to communicate with the model helicopters.

“It is what’s called real-time programming, which means the computer has to react very quickly to things that are happening. It’s a very demanding type of computer program to write. Even quite small delays can prevent accurate control.

“It’s the sort of project that captures the imagination; everyone wants to make it succeed and the students work pretty hard to get there, but that’s an important part of the learning. It’s all about problem based learning.”

Dr Weddell, who first made a connection with the University of Technology in Sydney while he was on sabbatical late last year, said there was potential for commercial application of the programme although that was not their focus.

“We are seeing more and more industry taking up remote lab applications. Not so much here but in Australia they have large mining rigs and most of those are controlled through remote labs. You might have huge trucks that are being driven thousands of miles away by a person remotely,” he said.

“This is a good example of how we can use different levels of technology - from browsers to embedded systems - that, at the end of the day, provide a really good experience for the students.”


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