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Boeing engineer George Windsor sat in a small room at a Boeing building in Seattle and picked up an iPhone. After a short series of finger movements and taps, a miniature unmanned aircraft that's about as big as a pizza box started to hover, turn and fly. In some cases, Windsor tapped on locations on a map on the iPhone, and the UAV went to that spot; in other instances, Windsor moved the phone up, down, left and right, and the vehicle moved accordingly.
What made this flight demonstration even more fascinating is that the UAV was hovering over a baseball field on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, Mass. – some 3,000 miles away.
"The application is very intuitive – it’s amazing,” Windsor said.
Students at MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab and researchers at Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing’s advanced, central R&D unit, are working to prove that a smart phone can be used to quickly and safely fly miniature unmanned aircraft.
"Boeing understands the need to do cutting-edge research."
With support from Boeing, the MIT students have designed a prototype, easy-to-use application for would-be UAV pilots who have smart phones with wireless or cell-phone connection capability.
Named Micro Aerial Vehicle Visualization of Unexplored Environments, or MAV-VUE, the project is but a part of Boeing’s overall advanced R&D effort to assimilate new ideas and innovative processes that can benefit customers. In this case, the company is working with industry and university partners such as MIT to find and develop better, simpler ways for people to control UAVs. These applications could allow UAVs to be used more effectively for tasks that are dirty or dangerous, as well as for missions that may be too long and tedious to have a human be continuously at the controls.
“Imagine a soldier pulling a small, lightweight UAV out of a backpack, and then controlling it – without having to micromanage the flight behaviors of the vehicle – to see around an otherwise inaccessible spot on the battlefield,” said Joshua Downs, a human factors specialist with Boeing Research & Technology and the Boeing technical leader of the MAV-VUE project. “Or a firefighter seeking a better way to gauge how quickly a forest fire is spreading, or a rescue worker trying to more quickly find and help victims of tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. It is applications such as this that are helping to move the technology forward.
“I’ve really enjoyed being part of this research project with MIT,” Downs added. “It’s an excellent example of how Boeing is collaborating with people at top universities throughout the world, and it’s been a lot of fun, too.”
“Boeing has been a great company to work with because Boeing understands the need to do cutting-edge research,” said Missy Cummings, director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab. “The people at Boeing have been great at helping us frame the problem and prove the technology so that we can eventually transition it back to Boeing so that they can use it in the real world.”
Cummings and the work at the MIT Humans and Automation Lab recently were featured in an article in The Boston Globe.