Getting drones to improve their self-awareness

Drones are increasingly being deployed as autonomous actors in uncontrolled environments. This requires reliable control and navigation. The research team at the University of Klagenfurt led by Stephan Weiss and Jan Steinbrener, which also includes doctoral student Christoph Böhm, is now working on improving the drone’s self-awareness so that it becomes better at adapting to changing conditions in the future.

“To ensure that a drone’s control system is reliable and robust, we typically use a simple physical model of a drone. This model includes how heavy it is and where its centre of gravity lies. Using a model-based control, we seek to enable the robust movement of the drone”, Christoph Böhm explains. He is part of the research team Control of Networked Systems (CNS) at the Department of Smart Systems Technologies.

But there is a problem with this method: The assumption is that once these parameters have been recorded, they will not change. Yet, in practice, individual parts of the drone may become deformed or the drone may have to pick up packages without having sufficient information about their contents and weight. Christoph Böhm continues: “We need some kind of self-awareness on the part of the drone, so that these influences can be factored in.” During its flight, the drone has to constantly update certain parameters such as weight or centre of gravity based on new information received. The research team aims to increase the safety of autonomous drones. According to Christoph Böhm, this is particularly necessary to promote acceptance of the new technology within society.

Christoph Böhm himself has long been an enthusiast when it comes to robotics – both on the ground and in the air. He tells us that he was fascinated by self-driving robots way back in his school days at the HTL (technical college) Mödling. After completing his Bachelor’s and Master’s studies at the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt, he felt drawn to the world of research. “This is the point where I thought to myself that I want to do something I feel really passionate about. And that’s why I applied to come to Klagenfurt.”

Among others, Stephan Weiss, an internationally distinguished drone researcher, works in Klagenfurt. Christoph Böhm embarked on the “little adventure” of heading to the south of Austria for his doctoral studies and he has no regrets about taking this step: “There was definitely a certain bias as a result of my previous holidays in Carinthia. I like this area very much. Besides, I enjoy a great deal of variety here in my research. This offsets other advantages that come with pursuing an early career in the industry. Plus, earning a doctorate will give me far more international opportunities in industry and research later on.”

At the end of our conversation, we ask whether Christoph Böhm would happily board a taxi drone in Dubai and we learn: “Yes, I would be interested in trying that. I have a lot of confidence in the developers in this area and trust them accordingly.” As a technology, drones are still young and new, and: “Interacting with a drone is different from interacting with a living being. This leads to fears that I can understand. However, I think that we should work towards achieving the greatest possible security.”

A few words with … Christoph Böhm

What would you be doing now, if you hadn’t become a scientist?

I guess that I would be an electronics developer in a medium-sized company in Vienna.

Do your parents understand what it is you are working on?

More or less. They know I’m researching methods to make drones more reliable.

What’s the first thing you do when you get to the office in the morning?

I check various platforms to see if there are any new publications in my field, so I can keep up with the state-of-the-art.

Do you have proper holidays? Without thinking about your work?

Yes, but it takes a while before I can switch off completely. Taking a holiday has the advantage that you can look at your problems afresh and then you often discover new solutions.

What makes you furious?

I would say it’s those tiny errors that are often well concealed and hard to find.

And what calms you down?

Music, it helps me to concentrate on my work.

Who do you regard as the greatest scientist in history, and why?

I can’t name just one. Because of my work, Isaac Newton, Leonhard Euler, William Hamilton and Rudolf Kálmán are very important people in my opinion.

What are you afraid of?

Putting a lot of time into developing an approach that may subsequently turn out to be unsuitable.

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