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Field experiments of autonomous drones in a mine-like environment

Published: 26 September 2019

For the first time, the robotics group at Luleå University of Technology showed field trials with autonomous drone flying in a mine-like environment. Research groups around the world have successfully flown autonomous drones indoors in labs, but few have the knowledge to fly autonomously outdoors and in dark and unstructured rock caverns or mines.

Field experiments with autonomous drones

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 Foto: Marcell Koeppe

– Our drones fly autonomously, which means that as soon as the drone has left the ground, there is no pilot to control it. The drone is programmed to analyze its surroundings and to make its own decisions, for example to be able to independently avoid obstacles, Christoforos Kanellakis, says, PhD Student in Control Engineering at Luleå University of Technology.

Reduces risks in mines

Autonomous drones can be used in many different areas, for example for risky inspections, which are currently carried out by people in accessible environments. For example, an autonomous drone can be sent into mines directly after blasting or racing, into buildings after an earthquake or high up in wind turbines. In addition to the safety aspect, self-driving drones can be of importance by reducing costs and probably safety- and  maintenance work will be  performed faster,  than by people doing it. In addition, it is likely that the drone's analyzes are more accurate.

Applied AI Excellence Center

The research in robotics with autonomous drones is linked to Luleå University of Technology's Center for Applied AI Research; Applied AI Excellence Centre. Since the university was founded in 1971, Luleå University of Technology has in many ways been closely associated with applied and experimental research and development that is done in close collaboration with external players. Thanks to the proximity to industries such as the mining industry, space, wood and forest and energy, the university has a technical profile and a prominent role both nationally and internationally.

– Luleå University of Technology is a leader in applied AI and Norrbotten offers a perfect test bed for the development of sustainable AI innovations that benefit society at large, Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, said, Vice-Chancellor at Luleå University of Technology.

Presentation of complicated research

The public field experiments with autonomous drones, that Luleå University of Technology did inside the mountain, show that the drones of the robotics group, can cope with the difficult task of navigating independently in the mountain caves or in a mine. The location is a delicate problem for the drone to solve, since the drone does not know where it is in relation to the surroundings, which requires a lot of computational power and complicated control algorithms.

–The drone fuses information from multiple sensors onboard to address the localization problem. In our approach the drone is commanded to move forward along the tunnel, while we have developed elaborate algorithms to properly regulate the drone's heading. Nevertheless, this problem is an ongoing quest in the robotics community and our team is continuously working in this direction, Christoforos Kanellakis says.

In the NASA-team

The work with autonomous drones at Luleå University of Technology takes place in close cooperation with, among others, NASA. The robotics group at Luleå University of Technology recently participated in NASA's team in the prestigious Subterranean Challenge competition, where they came second in the world. The research in robotics with autonomous drones is linked to Luleå University of Technology's Center for Applied AI Research; Applied AI Excellence Center.

George Nikolakopoulos

George Nikolakopoulos, Professor and Head of Subject

Phone: +46 (0)920 491298
Organisation: Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Signals and Systems, Department of Computer Science, Electrical and Space Engineering