ESA Smartphone App Turns AR.Drone Into Spaceship
March 16, 2013

ESA Smartphone App Turns AR.Drone Into Spaceship

April Flowers for — Your Universe Online

A free phone app from the European Space Agency (ESA), released this week, turns your iPhone-controlled "home drone" into a spacecraft. Owners of the Parrot AR.Drone quadcopter, which was recently featured on an episode of "King of the Nerds," can use the augmented reality game to attempt dockings with a simulated International Space Station (ISS) while flying their drones for real. The game adds a fun new dimension to flying the player´s drone and helps to improve robotic rendezvous methods at the same time.

AstroDrone is part of a new scientific crowdsourcing project by ESA's Advanced Concepts Team. The app will gather data to teach robots to navigate their environments.

[ Watch the Video: AstroDrone iPhone App ]

“People intuitively assess their position and motion in relation to their surroundings in various ways, based on what they see before them,” explained team research fellow Guido de Croon. “This new app lets us crowdsource examples of this process in practice, as a first step to reproducing it with artificial intelligence. For the ESA, the result could be much more autonomous spacecraft that can reliably maneuver, dock or land themselves.”

Though they were once the exclusive province of the military, technological advances have made remote-controlled drones accessible to everyone.

“For ESA, this development opens up completely new ways of involving the public in scientific experiments,” noted Leopold Summerer, head of the Advanced Concepts Team. “We can obtain real-life data to train our algorithms in large amounts that would practically be impossible to get in any other way."

Since their introduction in 2010, France's Parrot Company has sold around half a million of the AR.Drones. The midget drone is equipped with two cameras and flies on four rotors. It can be steered by iPhone or any other iOS device.

“We wanted to carry out robotic crowdsourcing, which meant selecting a robot that the public actually possesses in large numbers,” added Guido. “This is indeed a robot that people have at home and play games with, with the imaging capabilities we need.”

“In addition, the manufacturer has made the source code needed to communicate with the drone open to anyone to develop software.”

Using the AstroDrone app, the user places an augmented-reality marker on a real-world object or feature to represent the ISS docking port. Placing the drone onto a graphical version of the ISS in as rapid but controlled a manner as possible is the challenge, with bonus points for correct orientation and low speed on final approach.

“Here at ESA´s ESTEC technical [center] in the Netherlands we happen to have a ceiling-mounted scale model of the Space Station to maneuver around — not everyone is so lucky,” remarked Guido. “But with AstroDrone anyone can share the same experience.”

As they log their scores on the high-score table, players are invited to contribute to the experiment anonymously via the Internet.

Guido explained, “We´re not interested in the places people are flying in. We will not receive any raw video images or GPS measurements, only the abstract mathematical image features that the drone itself perceives for navigation, along with velocity readings.”

Guido, along with his colleagues Paul Gerke and Ida Sprinkhuizen-Kuyper of Radboud University in the Netherlands developed the app. Versions are planned for other devices as time allows, along with new space rendezvous scenarios. For example, your drone could double for ESA's Rosetta probe rendezvousing with the 67P/Churyumov—Gerasimenko comet, which takes place for real next year.

The Parrot AR.Drone retails for approximately $300 USD, with several accessories available.