Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will be showcasing its latest R&D expertise in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology at the Singapore Airshow, one of the most important aerospace and defence exhibitions in the world, held from 11 to 16 February.
Visitors to the Singapore Airshow will be able to see 12 drones, programmed by NTU scientists and researchers, flying in formation within inches of each other and executing complex indoor aerial manoeuvres.
In addition to the formation air-show by 12 quad-rotor Unmanned Aerial Vehicles complete with strobe lights and music, visitors will also be able to play various games using the drones.
Leader of the team, Professor Low Kin Huat from NTU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said they hope to bring scientific R&D closer to the public, in order to let them better understand the importance of science and engineering and what it can achieve.
"NTU has deep expertise in robotics and UAVs in the last two decades, so putting up such a large indoor aerial showcase is a testament to the capability of our UAV research team," said Prof Low.
"UAV hardware can be easily bought off the shelf, but expertise know-how in programming is not as easily acquired, hence the need to do research and to train manpower in this field," added the robotics expert, who has groomed some of NTU's young talents in the field.
"With growing interest by businesses to use drones as delivery vehicles, and to be autonomous aerial cameras for mapping and observation purposes, it is important that Singapore and NTU continue at the cutting-edge of such technology.
All the UAVs used for the aerial display are custom-made according to the team's designs. The software which programmes the drone movements were developed from scratch in Singapore by the NTU team over a period of three years.
Each UAV is made up of a carbon fibre frame, with four rotors that are six to eight inches long. On it are radio control modules, sensors and electronics, complete with a battery pack. For the UAVs to fly in a certain pattern, the team has to first upload their specified pathways to their unique software, which then programmes the flying instructions for each of the 12 drones.
A big challenge lies in ensuring that the UAVs do not collide while flying in close proximity to one another, as there are certain factors beyond human control, such as unpredictable sensor noises or equipment interference emitted by the drones.
Properly coordinated path planning and control were crucial in maintaining the desired flight patterns of the UAVs.
The exact positioning of each drone is determined by more than 30 video cameras mounted over the indoor stage, which is 10 metres long and wide, with a height of 5 metres. The UAV flight formation, which is fully autonomous, includes unique manoeuvres only doable by rotatory aircrafts, such as hovering and flying from side to side.
Hands-on experience for visitors at NTU's booth
Visitors to NTU's booth at the Airshow will get to experience the university's UAV know-how via interactive games. In the "Commando" game, the player pilots a UAV into the centre of the stage to pick up an object guarded by three other flying UAVs. After picking up the object, the player's drone will have to escape and drop off the object into a nearby receptacle.
Another interesting game is the "Hot Pursuit" where the player drives a remote control car down a race track to avoid being hunted down by an automated UAV.
In both the games, the objective is to do it in the shortest time possible and to set a daily record.
The third game is called "Quad-ligraphy", where players will write an English word or Chinese character on a tablet. The drone will then pick up a calligraphy brush and write the same word or character on a large piece of paper, stroke for stroke.
Prof Low says his team hopes to draw the public's attention to the capabilities of UAVs and explain some of the basic science behind them through the unique aerial display and interactive games.
"Through this event, I hope more students will be inspired to take up engineering, which goes beyond just building mere machines or structures. It is a field that allows for creativity and innovation that is limited only by one's imagination," said Prof Low.
Going forward, the team will continue to research and develop more UAV technologies, which may include outdoor formation flying and location recognition systems, which are also tough challenges faced by many scientists today.