Research to make spyplanes smarter, keep troops safe

March 9, 2007

University of Central Florida professors Niels da Vitoria Lobo and Mubarak Shah earned a grant this week to develop a way for small, unmanned spyplanes to "speak" to each other to provide better intelligence to troops on battlefields.

The College of Engineering and Computer Science researchers will work with unmanned aerial vehicles that the military uses to collect intelligence on battlefields. In addition to allowing the planes to communicate with each other, the programming will make the drones smarter so that they can follow targets and hand off tracking to other drones when the targets leave their area.

All this information would be beamed back to a laptop computer on the ground in real-time 3-D images, giving decision-makers valuable and timely information.

The $210,600 grant from the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program will allow the researchers to purchase three small planes with a wingspan of 72 inches, three small helicopters measuring 48 inches long and 15 inches wide, camera equipment, communication devices, transmitters and computers to control each vehicle and make calculations.

Currently, such drones provide images for a limited area, cannot easily track objects, cannot communicate well with each other and need humans to interpret the data they receive. In other words, they can't react to moving objects without help. The UCF research will allow the drones to work automatically and seamlessly with one another.

While the applications to the military are obvious -- giving troops better intelligence and keeping them safe -- there are other practical applications, Lobo said. The technology could be adapted to do everything from assisting police in catching a fleeing car-jacker to helping search and rescue teams find stranded people in treacherous terrain to helping fight large brush fires by keeping track of the fires' movements.

"There are many challenges to making it all work together," Lobo said. "But we think we have the resources and intellectual resources to make it all work. There are a lot of practical applications, and the equipment the grant allows us to buy will provide excellent opportunities for our students' similar research with other applications."

In addition to graduate students, undergraduates will have opportunities to conduct research through the UCF Computer Vision Lab's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which has been funded by the National Science Foundation since 1987. The program has earned national attention for giving undergraduate students the opportunity to complete high-quality research projects.

"It's very exciting," Lobo said. "And the research our students will be able to conduct is equally stimulating. Hopefully younger students will hear about this and get interested so they can continue the research."

Faculty members in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science spend time working with high school students during summer camps and at robotics competitions during the year. It's a way for them to show students that engineering has real-life applications.

Lobo's grant proposal emphasized that the equipment will not only help immediate research, but will also vastly expand a student's ability to do research in related areas such as developing technology to detect improvised explosive devices, better known as IEDs or "roadside bombs."

Shah, director of UCF's Computer Vision Lab and winner of UCF's 2006 Pegasus Professor award, has already developed the Automated Aerial Video Exploitation System, which is capable of performing motion compensation, moving object detection, object tracking and indexing of videos taken from a camera mounted on an airborne vehicle. It tracks items as small as 200 pixels and works seamlessly for visible and thermal imaging modes. Shah's system was developed under a series of grants from local and national companies. The DURIP grant will further strengthen the work on that project.

"There are a lot of challenges, but it is an exciting arena and that's the fun part of it," Lobo said. "Pushing the envelope and finding ways to make technology smarter. In this case to see, much like a human being."

Source: University of Central Florida

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