For the 23rd year in a row, several university teams have come together to do the impossible with autonomous aerial vehicles. This was the first year of “Mission 7” which tasked collegiate teams to build a system that used unmanned air vehicles to avoid moving obstacles and direct free running iRobot Create robots, based on the Roomba floor sweeping models, across a goal line and prevent them from leaving the 20 meter by 20 meter field. A complete description of the contest and the rules can be found at: http://www.aerialroboticscompetition.org/. This is an international competition. The teams that competed in Georgia were from Canada and the U.S. while almost simultaneously there was a separate venue running the competition in China with teams from China, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Spain. None of the teams successfully completed the mission this year, as expected. The missions created by Rob Michelson are very challenging. Rob’s intent is to have a contest that pushes technology to its extreme limit just beyond the current capability of most of the competition teams.
The contest has always focused on autonomous systems. It is not a contest of the eye hand coordination of the operators but their ability to make a system that can perform the various tasks without human intervention. Of course, there are “operators standing by” with kill mechanisms to bring down the flying vehicles immediately if there is a problem and they have been needed from time to time.
This year the vehicles were required to navigate a 20 meter by 20 meter field in a building where GPS assistance would not be available. The vehicles had to avoid moving obstacles that were as high as 2 meters and interact with free running autonomous robots (iRobot’s Create robots—similar to the Roomba vacuum cleaners). The goal is to herd robots across a green boundary line and prevent the robots from exiting out of the other three sides.
This year one team at the U.S. venue and two teams at the Chinese venue flew completely autonomous. Those three were the only teams that could accrue points in the competition. Autonomy is a fundamental requirement. Even so, the points are meaningless except for bragging rights. No team successfully interacted or changed the trajectory of the free-running robots which means next year everyone is at the same level. The team that successfully herds the most robots across the green boundary while demonstrating intelligent navigation and obstacle avoidance will win the first phase of Mission 7 and be rewarded with a prize of $30,000. Once that happens, the top teams will be invited to compete in the second phase where teams will be pitted against each other in an elimination contest thus demonstrating the ability for autonomous systems to sense and avoid competing robots.
Each year I look forward to spending time with Rob Michelson and his wife Denise, along with their two sons, who I’ve watched grow up from elementary school to college graduates, along with the other judges. I’m especially looking forward to seeing the advances these young people make as they attempt the impossible for the second time. For more information on the contest and the other IARC Missions, please check out http://www.aerialroboticscompetition.org/index.php, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Aerial_Robotics_Competition.