Home' Technology Review : May June 2009 Contents The vehicle glides over the rough Afghan
terrain, scanning for militants and insurgent
troops in training. Thousands of miles away, in
Nevada, a soldier helps the plane navigate the
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
represents one of the latest examples of
high-tech equipment increasingly in demand
in battle zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The vehicles are also ser ving both security
and civilian purposes here in the United
States, such as zooming along the edges of
forest fires or hovering in clouds to collect
Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)
are being designed to serve similar security and
civilian purposes, but in a marine environment;
to test for chemical plumes or evaluate oil
spills; to investigate potential terrorist threats
from ships; and to conduct scientific surveys
of underwater environments.
VISION AND JUDGMENT
One significant problem in designing fully au-
tonomous unmanned vehicles is the capability
to recognize objects in the environment and
judge how to respond.
Prioria Robotics, a small company located
near the University of Florida, in Gainesville,
has partnered with the university UAV lab
to find solutions to this problem. Prioria has
developed image-processing technologies to
help a small plane "perceive the world around
it," says CEO Bryan da Frota. The company
mounted its system on Maveric, a mini-UAV
with a 29-inch wingspan that Prioria launched
into the market in early 2008.
they avoid groups of buildings or trees and
adjust to shifts in terrain. A dense urban center
such as downtown Manhattan, however, would
prove too complicated for Maveric's current
navigation system. Prioria has already sold the
UAVs both domestically and internationally
and is working on refining and improving the
EVALUATING THE WATER
Similar challenges exist for marine systems.
GPS signals, which ser ve well for aerial vehicles,
cannot penetrate underwater. The Marine Tech-
nology Program at SRI International, based
at the research institute's St. Petersburg, FL,
branch, is working on advanced systems that
allow underwater vehicles to precisely navigate
SRI is also working on sensors that are
smaller and cheaper, and demand less energy.
Says Larry Langebrake, director of SRI, "You
need a mission controller onboard the vehicle
that has enough computing capability that it
can take multiple sensory
input, such as position and
chemical composition, and
use those together to make
decisions." Those com-
puting needs require increased power, and
miniaturized low-power sensors could free up
power for use elsewhere in the vehicle. SRI
has already employed its AUVs and sensors
in fisheries research and has mapped and
catalogued a Civil War--era steamship off
Florida's west coast.
Today's aerial vehicles can send streaming
video back to a central control. In the future,
soldiers in battle or police officers in a city
hope to have vehicles capable of autonomous-
ly analyzing video and alerting the attending
soldier or officer to a potential threat.
This is the challenge that Mubarak Shah,
director of the computer vision lab at the
University of Central Florida (UCF), is trying
to tackle. His lab is developing a system that
not only records video, but can also recognize
behaviors such as violence, the movement of
people falling down due to a chemical attack,
or figures r unning from a threat.
"The approach is to train the system to
recognize example behavior," says Shah. "We'll
have someone running, and then train the sys-
tem to learn what that is so it can report back,
'I saw r unning.'"
This type of system exists in a fixed land-
based video, but developing an equivalent
for moving aerial vehicles presents additional
computational challenges. Shah's UCF lab has
received Defense Department research fund-
ing and is partnering with companies such as
The potential for security applications, law
enforcement, and research is vast, and scien-
tists are getting closer to making it a reality.
The Technology Review Custom Team takes a look at the
we live and do business.
The last of four articles focuses on groundbreaking UAV
means---not only for the Defense Department, but also f
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MAVERIC PHOTO COURTESY OF PRIORIA ROBOTICS, INC.
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