Flying Around Corners and Beyond

John Coggi leads the team that is working to fly UAVs out of the line of sight of their controllers. (Photo: Frank Rohmer)

As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) become more common, people are finding all kinds of uses for them. But the vehicles still have their limitations, and one of them is that many UAVs can’t be controlled if they are out of the line of sight of their controller.

Obviously, this causes problems if the area is full of obstacles, such as buildings, that would prevent the UAV from “seeing” its controller.

The Aerospace team of John Coggi, Jeff Lang, and Dr. Jeff Padin has successfully demonstrated a way to get around this problem (no pun intended), and they are looking to improve their solution further.

They were looking for an inexpensive, simple, and portable solution that could be quickly deployed when needed. The goal was to have something that could be used by, for example, a search-and-rescue team looking for someone in a rugged landscape, or law enforcement trying to get eyes on an active shooter on the other side of a building.

The concept they developed involves having one UAV fly above the desired area and act as a relay between the controller and another UAV that actually does the scouting.

After visualizing their idea using Aerospace’s Satellite Orbit Analysis Program, more commonly known as SOAP, the team bought two commercial quadcopters to try it out.

They modified the quadcopters by adding special communications equipment in Aerospace’s Engineering Prototyping and Innovation Center. Then they took them on a several-day trip to try them out at a Joint Interagency Field Experiment (JIFX) hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School in Paso Robles, CA.

They tried flying their UAVs in two different environments at JIFX, one with buildings, and the other with hills. For comparison purposes, they tried flying a regular UAV, which crash-landed once it went over a hill and lost sight of its controller.

The team’s concept is to use one UAV as a relay and the other as a scout. (Graphic: Mark Muto)

The team’s concept is to use one UAV as a relay and the other as a scout. (Graphic: Mark Muto)

In contrast, the modified quadcopter had a successful test flight in which it was able to navigate the rolling terrain even when the controller was out of line of sight. It was also able to fly around a building in the other environment.

The trip was not without its challenges, including long treks across unfriendly terrain to pick up downed UAVs, encounters with tarantulas, and a dead car battery after using it to charge the UAV batteries.

“Every day we’d have to jump start the car,” Coggi said.

Despite the difficulties, the team was happy to see that their concept worked in this first round of test flights.

“We were really enthused and excited about these test results. We got a lot of data, a lot of video, a lot of flight telemetry,” Coggi said. “It’s still a lot to process.”

Going forward, the team wants to try connecting multiple quadcopters and have each one act as a relay or scout as necessary. They also want to reduce the weight of the equipment that the UAV has to carry, and improve the video that the UAV transmits.

While there is still work to be done, the potential applications for this technology are numerous, and many government, civil, and commercial organizations stand to benefit from Aerospace’s innovative work.


—Laura Johnson