When Drones Descend with Jon Rogers

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Drone technology is quickly evolving – no longer just delivering packages or pizzas, but also helping with search and rescue missions. They’re also starting to crowd the skies at inopportune times. George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering assistant professor John Rogers discusses the future of drone technology at Georgia Tech.


[train whistle]
[crowd cheering]
[instrumental Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech fight song]
Steve McLaughlin: You're listening to The Uncommon Engineer. I'm your host, Steve McLaughlin, dean of the college.
Radio Announcer: We’re just absolutely pleased as punk to have you with us. Please say a few words.

[mechanical whirring]

Radio broadcast: Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Steve: Actually, it's a drone. Drone technology is evolving quickly, no longer just delivering packages or pizzas.

Robot: It’s Little Nero, sir. I have your pizza.

Steve: But also helping with search and rescue missions. They’re also certain to crowd the skies in inopportune ways.

I'm Steve McLaughlin, dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering, and this is The Uncommon Engineer, our look at how Georgia Tech engineers make a difference in our world, in our daily lives, and in ways you might not expect for an engineer.

My guest today is Dr. Jon Rogers. He's a professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.

Hi, Jon. Welcome to the program.

Jon: Thanks, Steve. Great to be here.

Steve: You know, people are really, really interested in drones and the realization that they're going to have more prevalence in our daily lives. How common do you think drones are going to be in the coming years and where do you see everything headed?

Jon: I agree with you, Steve. There's a lot of excitement out there, and I think if we look at, you know, first of all, I think drones are going to be very prevalent. I think we're gonna see the acceptance of the technology grow steadily over the next several decades. What I think is really fascinating is that a lot of the drone technology that we see today being deployed—it's really executing missions that manned aircraft already do. What's going to be interesting over the next several decades is to watch drones take on missions that manned aircraft have never done, and that's going to be the wave of the future. So you think about on-demand delivery of supplies. You need a box of diapers at your house, and you need it now. You're willing to pay a little bit extra. It can be flown there by an autonomous drone within minutes. And really, that's never going to be achievable by a manned platform, just because there aren't enough delivery people to go around. It's never going to be economically feasible to pay people to do that.

Other things like repetitive missions or on-demand tactical surveillance. You know, a police car shows up at an accident, needs to take an overhead photograph. You're not going to deploy a manned helicopter to go do that. So as soon as you take the person out of the vehicle, it opens up a lot of doors in terms of new missions. So over the next 20 to 30 years, we're going to see these new mission sets opened up, and that's going to come with a lot of regulatory, privacy, liability issues that are going to have to be solved, which is why I don't think drones are going to be performing these missions next year. It's going to take tens of years to get there.

Steve: We're taping the show just a few days after the president of Venezuela was attacked by drones. It was interesting—I follow a number of different cyber-security people online, and there was a prediction made: If you're a famous person or a government official, in five years, I guarantee you will have a cadre of drones protecting you against a cadre of drones that are going to be trying to attack you. It was kind of funny to hear that. But what do you think? I mean, does that make sense?

Jon: It's coming. Drones pose a lot of great opportunities and a lot of—they present possible great benefits—opportunities to benefit our society—but they also present a huge security threat that's very asymmetric. So we don't have the technologies to address that security threat right now, and it's troubling. It's something a lot of people are working on, but I haven't seen any kind of slam-dunk solution yet.

Steve: Privacy is clearly a big thing, whether that's around surveillance, your own personal space. Can you say more about privacy, because it certainly interacts with all this stuff in cyber-security and social media.

Jon: I think privacy is a huge concern. So think about this: One of the issues that arises when you think about drones is this idea of anonymity. So the drone is tele-operated or possibly even autonomous. It's extremely difficult to identify who is operating it, unlike manned aircraft. So if you think about a manned aircraft, you're flying a manned aircraft over a house. There's only a handful of places in the Atlanta area that you can land that aircraft. So if someone's trying to track down who was, you know, who was circling with a video camera over a celebrity's house, it’s actually quite easy to do that with radar tracks and a finite number of airports. Now, you can land a drone anywhere. Radar is, you know, these air traffic radars purposefully don't discriminate and aren't looking for targets that small size, because if they did, they'd see nothing but birds all day. And recently I heard in a suburban Atlanta neighborhood, this drone flew over like a preschool yard and then took video for 10 minutes and then flew off. And the police, they can't find out who did it. And so we have this problem of anonymity when these things are operated. That's going to translate in 20 years, 10 years, whenever to regulations that are going to force manufacturers and are going to force operators to take ownership and remove that anonymity of operation. It's going to basically force drones to interact with cell towers and transmit position signals so that they can be tracked and traced to their operators. Just like a license plate on a car, it's going to have to happen sooner or later.

Steve: Is that kind of tracking absolutely essential or do we really want people to have the ability to be anonymous in these things? And my gut is telling me no, no. As soon as we allow anonymity around these things that are hard to track and we don't know where they're going to take off from or land, yeah. That kind of ability to track and eliminate the anonymity seems really, really, really important thing. I think a lot of people are not really thinking about.

Jon: You have to keep in mind when you fly that drone around, you're not operating in your own private area anymore. Just like when you drive a car on a road, you can no longer—you lose some of your rights to privacy when you operate that aircraft in public airspace. You have to abide by whatever public regulations there are for the public good.

Steve: Some of the things you were saying before, you talked about mission-oriented drones. And I know that you've been working on drones that might lift wounded soldiers from the battlefield and you know kind of more heavy lift kinds of kinds of things. Talk a little bit about that work, what your students are doing, the kinds of things that you're developing.

Jon: So a lot of drones are built for video surveillance. It's really the main roles that they're playing at a commercial level. But there's a lot more potential, as long as you can lift heavier payloads. A lot of the drones that people buy out there are really only capable of lifting a couple of pounds, and you're not going to be able to provide much of a service in terms of delivery. So we've been looking at drones, you know, that can lift heavier payloads, but one of the things you run into is that as the vehicle, as the payload capacity grows, the vehicle size grows significantly. So by the time you're able to pick up 100 pounds, you have one very large vehicle that becomes cumbersome to transport, cumbersome to store, dangerous to operate. So we've been thinking about decomposing that large lifting capability into multiple smaller vehicles that can be scaled, tasked appropriately. You have, you know, a 20-pound box, you need two vehicles. You have a 200-pound box, you need five vehicles. And these vehicles would be kind of all the same and stored in a warehouse and deployed in various numbers as needed. And if you can make them man-portable, the powerful capabilities that for, you know, a defense-oriented mission like, you know, an army-oriented mission, soldiers can keep these drones in their backpacks and take them with them on, you know, on foot. And then when they need to reach out and get supplies, they can pull five of their UAVs together to go get it and bring it back.

If several soldiers—they can pool their drones, deploy them, and send and gather supplies and bring it back together. So this whole idea of collaborative lifting allows you to create this new mission set where you can carry heavy supplies but with smaller vehicles that can be distributed to potentially different people. And the battlefield casualty evacuation is one mission that a lot of people are interested in, because when a soldier is wounded on the battlefield, you know, he or she has to literally be lifted off by someone else. Someone else has to go out there in harm's way, pull this soldier off. So there's a lot of interest in how can we do that autonomously?

Ground vehicles. There's all kinds of issues with them getting tangled and getting blocked or not being able to go up a hill. So air vehicles offer a lot of benefit, but one air vehicle lifting a person presents a huge operational burden, because that's going to be a miniature helicopter. So the vehicles we've developed, three or four of them, they’re relatively small, but they can connect to a person and lift him or her off the battlefield. We think that could be a transformative technology, but there's a lot of technological barriers that we need to overcome and a lot of technology we need to develop. So that's what we're engaged in, some of my students and our research group.

Steve: One of the things that some of our listeners might have heard about, that your work that's received a lot of attention is Tarzan.

Recording of Jon: We designed it like a sloth, but we named it Tarzan. When somebody came to me and asked, how do we get a robot to live in a field for long periods of time and walk around and move around persistently without needing a human to help it, the only way is to do something kind of out of a way and off the ground.

Steve: Tarzan is a robot that you built that swings along like the famed king of the jungle. Say a little bit about the story behind that and more about how you got into that.

Jon: Tarzan was a little bit of a stretch, initially, for our research, because we don't do a lot of ground vehicles or what we call brachiating or swinging robots. We are mostly focused on air vehicles. Some of my collaborators—intellectual, engineering, and computer science—came to me as a mechanical engineer and said, you know, “We want robots to be able to traverse farm fields and perform this persistent surveillance mission and kind of live in fields over long periods of time,” and they had algorithms. They had methods they wanted to use to, you know, sense the plant environment, provide feedback to a grower, et cetera, which was great and they said, “Can you figure out how to have a robot out there all the time? You go work on that for a while.”

And I told them, I said, “Hey, listen, from a mobility standpoint, you've given me the ultimate challenge in robotics and asked me to solve it. You know, there's so much research right now in enabling robots to navigate and locomote in these unstructured environments, you know, not a street, not a sidewalk, but a field full of tangly plants and mud. And this is the hardest environment for our robotic systems to navigate right now.

So we came up with this idea of overhead wires that would hang and basically create a structured environment where a structured environment did not exist previously. We make our own structured environment and then we can traverse that reliably in a very energy-efficient way. So as soon as we hang these wires, presumably low-cost wires over a farm field, we built this robot that not only traverses along a wire but can swing between wires, and that's why we came up with Tarzan. It doesn't just roll along a wire but has to be able to move between wires. And that's the swinging motion that comes in.

Swinging has actually been studied in the robotics community for quite a long time. Can be made very energy efficient and that's the major advantage of it. So we can live out there under solar power for months at a time, swinging its way around.

Steve: Have you built the system?

Jon: Yes, we have and we have a couple versions of Tarzans swinging around the lab. It's a little scary to watch it swing, frankly, because it’s a little bit large and the size is determined by how far crop rows are apart. So you know, they’re typically three feet apart, so Tarzan has to be able to swing three feet, which is kind of a big distance, and that means that Tarzan itself has to be between about four and five feet long when both arms are outstretched.

Steve: The wires that you would string in the field would be one wire per row of crops. But if you chose to do one wire every 10 rows, then Tarzan's get to be a lot bigger? So what kind of sensors is Tarzan sensing? What's Tarzan doing?

Jon: There's a payload on the bottom of it. It's really made to be a flexible sensing platform, but we'll put an infrared camera on the bottom of it and a visual camera. And as we're swinging over these crop rows, we'll take pictures of the plants and process those images using various types of image-recognition, machine-learning algorithms to try to pick out, you know, areas where the plants need more water or they need some type of treatment or so on. And that's of course not my area, but we have collaborators at UGA who are working on systems like that where they can take images of plants and process them in an automated way and provide targeted feedback. Potentially in the future task, another automated system to go out and deploy that treatment. And so there's a difference between, say, a treatment robot that goes out there on a targeted basis once a day and once a week and Tarzan, which is constantly bringing in new pictures. It's out there, it moves kind of slow, but it's always there persistently taking pictures and swinging around these many, many acres by itself with no human intervention.

Its yield improvement is how they measure it. So they say, you know, a certain percentage of our crops every year, they don't grow as well as they should because they needed treatment and we didn't know about it because these farms can be hundreds of thousands of acres. To go target every single plant, right, so that's one area.

What I'm really interested in is moving beyond just crop surveillance to actually harvesting. This is a robot, if you think about a sloth or some other primate, they do the same thing: They swing around the jungle, they hook their tail on a branch, and then they go pick fruit. Why can't Tarzan 10 years from now do the same thing? This is already swinging around. Can we create a separate appendage that harvests. Actually harvesting in the specialty crop community is becoming a big issue, because they can't find people to go pick strawberries. The way Tarzan can not only monitor crops’ health but then tell when a strawberry is ready to pick, go pick it. Now you're talking about something that I think will be even more marketable.

Steve: One of the things that we always talk about on The Uncommon Engineer is your own personal story. What drew you to engineering? Say a little bit about your path to where you are today.

Jon: I like that question because it speaks very much to me personally. I have perhaps a typical story for an aerospace engineer. So if anyone is listening as an aerospace engineer, they probably identify with my story. Ever since I remember, I was obsessed with airplanes. I had every airplane toy. You know, I had the models of the F-14 Tomcat, you know, every different toy model you could build. My toy box when I was a kid had just airplane models overstuffing it, you know, of all different shapes and sizes. Most of them were broken. So I've always loved airplanes.

When I was 16, I took my first flying lesson and solo—did my first solo flight when I was 17 and got my pilot’s license when I was 18. So I've always wanted to work with airplanes and be around airplanes. And when the opportunity came to work, you know, to basically be involved in the aerospace community and create the next generation of aircraft, well how could I turn that down?

For me, I could never be an engineer unless I was passionately driven by the technology. As long as it goes back and connects to my love of aircraft, that's what that's what really keeps me interested at a core level. And so that's why I'm always driven to things that fly. And I always push our research toward experiment, because I want to actually see it fly. That's what excites me.

And on top of that, you're a professor and you're in the classroom and you're obviously completely committed to your research and the technology as you just described. But why a professor? Because you could have gone to work for Boeing, for a company like that. What about being a professor adds on to that?

Jon: It's the creativity. One of the best parts—I always tell my students, the best part about my job is that when we have an idea, I don't really have to ask anyone's permission to go after it. And really, that's the unique part about my job is that, you know, I can scrape together some resources and there's always a pool of interested students to work on stuff. And so these ideas about drones, they collaborate. You know, this idea about Tarzan. These were ideas that I or my collaborators had in an office one day and we turned it into reality. You can't do that anywhere else. When I was a kid, I was always building, you know, I got all the balsa wood and would build different things and modify things. Being able to combine creativity with a love of aviation, well, that's really the core of what my job is all about.

Steve: You're doing so many cool things today. It's hard to imagine cooler stuff out there, but I bet there is out there. So what's next for you and your group?

I think we have a lot of really fascinating research coming up, and I've never been more excited about where we're headed. I really love this idea of modular vertical lifts. I'm hoping that that idea comes together and has an impact. And I think it's so flexible in its application that I can see it going in so many different directions. What we want to do in the next year is we want to get a pack. We've already done many of the experiments that are going to lead up to this, but we're going to come to a culminating experiment in a few years, actually about a year from now, where we put a box in a field, three drones fly to the box autonomously, connect, pick it up, and fly it somewhere. We'll get there soon. And then I think we're going to move from there to looking at picking up people in a lot of these more difficult missions where we're not picking up a box, we’re picking up something that's harder.

I think another fascinating thing that needs to be addressed is this whole idea of counter-UAV, counter-UAS, or counter-drone. You mentioned it before about Venezuela. Well, these are new asymmetric security threats. How do we counter them? I fundamentally believe that we need drones to counter them. So we're developing drones in my lab that go out and capture other drones. I haven’t talked a lot about it, but that's a big topic that we're getting into and we're going to do flight tests on that here in the next year or two. So I'm hoping to make that a big thrust area is, you know, the next generation of drones are going to be able to go out and capture other drones. There's a lot of technological barriers to being able to do that reliably, but that's been one of the areas we're interested in looking at.

Steve: One of the questions we always ask on The Uncommon Engineer is Jon, what makes you an uncommon engineer?

Jon: I think a couple of things. So the first thing I would start with is my love of aviation and my sense of how our work and my students’ work really fits into that unique history of aviation. If you look at technologies that have been developed, whether they’re cellphones, whether they’re internet, the history of aviation is special. You know, the history of aviation is something that is broadly known by the public. They know the Wright brothers. So I look at our research and I like to understand how it fits in the history, how it fits in the emerging technology of aerospace in general. So I'm fascinated by that and I like to place our technologies that we develop into context and make sure that they fit.

But actually, I think the more important answer to that question, what makes me an uncommon engineer, is unlike most engineers, my greatest contribution to engineering will not be technologies. It won't be papers. It won't be even ideas. It will be people. So here in my role, no matter what I do in terms of technologies, the technologies that my students develop after they leave will always be more and will always be better. And so my real goal and my real fulfillment that I get as an engineer is actually when I see other engineers develop and do great things. There's no better feeling in the world—you know this because you've had many students—than having a student come into your office and say, “Hey, I want to work for you in grad school.” And they think they know a lot, but a lot of times they don't really know that much and then they leave your group four or five years later with a Ph.D. My students are usually smarter than me by that time.

Steve: Oh, yeah.

Jon: They're more technically, you know, deep and competent. And you think to yourself, like, wow, that was an amazing transition and it was awesome to be a part of that.

Steve: Again, I couldn't agree with you more. I think we're really, really lucky to be at a university where at the end of the day our job, our careers really are about people. And there's ideas and technologies and other things that come along with that. But we're really, really lucky to have careers that are really truly focused on people.

Jon Rogers, it's really been fantastic to have you here today, hear about all the cool things that you're doing and your personal story. Thanks for everything you do here at Georgia Tech. We're really, really lucky to have you here. Thanks so much, Jon.

Jon: Thanks for having me, Steve. It was great.

Steve: That's all for this episode of The Uncommon Engineer. Join me next month for a conversation about neuroscience, learning, and memory with Annabelle Singer. For now, that's all for The Uncommon Engineer. I'm Steve McLaughlin. Thanks for listening.

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