Because the problem of autonomous plane navigation in confined spaces is so difficult, and because it's such a new area of research, the MIT team is initially giving its plane a leg up by providing it with an accurate digital map of its environment. That's something that the helicopters in the AUVSI challenges don't have: They have to build a map as they go.
But the plane still has to determine where it is on the map in real time, using data from a laser rangefinder and inertial sensors — accelerometers and gyroscopes — that it carries on board. It also has to deduce its orientation — how much it's tilted in any direction — its velocity, and its acceleration. Because many of those properties are multidimensional, to determine its state at any moment, the plane has to calculate 15 different values.
That's a massive computational challenge, but Bry, Roy and Abraham Bachrach — a grad student in electrical engineering and computer science who's also in Roy's group — solved it by combining two different types of state-estimation algorithms. One, called a particle filter, is very accurate but time consuming; the other, called a Kalman filter, is accurate only under certain limiting assumptions, but it's very efficient. Algorithmically, the trick was to use the particle filter for only those variables that required it and then translate the results back into the language of the Kalman filter.
To plot the plane's trajectory, Bry and Roy adapted extremely efficient motion-planning algorithms developed by AeroAstro professor Emilio Frazzoli's Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems (ARES) Laboratory. The ARES algorithms, however, are designed to work with more reliable state information than a plane in flight can provide, so Bry and Roy had to add an extra variable to describe the probability that a state estimation was reliable, which made the geometry of the problem more complicated.
Paul Newman, a professor of information engineering at the University of Oxford and leader of Oxford's Mobile Robotics Group, says that because autonomous plane navigation in confined spaces is such a new research area, the MIT team's work is as valuable for the questions it raises as the answers it provides. "Looking beyond the obvious excellence in systems," Newman says, the work "raises interesting questions which cannot be easily bypassed."
But the answers are interesting, too, Newman says. "Navigation of lightweight, dynamic vehicles against rough prior 3-D structural maps is hard, important, timely and, I believe, will find exploitation in many, many fields," he says. "Not many groups can pull it all together on a single platform."
The MIT researchers' next step will be to develop algorithms that can build a map of the plane's environment on the fly. Roy says that the addition of visual information to the rangefinder's measurements and the inertial data could make the problem more tractable. "There are definitely significant challenges to be solved," Bry says. "But I think that it's certainly possible."