From Drone Deliveries to Drone Swarms: An Interview with Dr. Chris Vo

Monday, 07 August 2017 - 4:39PM
Monday, 07 August 2017 - 4:39PM
From Drone Deliveries to Drone Swarms: An Interview with Dr. Chris Vo
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Image credit: Pixabay
Some people's job descriptions read like a laundry list of corporate jargon. Dr. Chris Vo might have the coolest one we've read yet (apart from the NASA job posting for 'planetary protection offer'): he's the Chief Technologist for Sentien Robotics, "a research and development firm studying synergistic solutions between aerial and ground robotic platforms with a special focus in swarms and intelligence." Translation? He works on developing hardware and software to take drones from fun hobbyist tech to futuristic flying tools. He's going to be moderating a panel at this year's Escape Velocity event in Washington D.C., organized by the Museum of Science Fiction, where he'll be talking about the future of drones, but we sat down with Chris to get a sneak peek.

If you want a chance to win a pair of weekend tickets to Escape Velocity, you can enter here!

The Face of Drones Today

Chris Vo received his PhD at George Mason University, where he studied Computer Science. There, he began researching the dynamics of swarms in robotics, especially drones. Drones posed a special interest to Vo, who saw them as the "least expensive platform to bring experiments into the real world." Around 2010, he noticed that there wasn't a lot of info about how to build your own quadcopter (or accompanying software), so he started looking for groups. Soon after, he and some colleagues started the DC Drone User Group, which has gone from a group of hobbyists to an advocacy group with its own representative in the FAA's Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) about drone identification.
Over the phone, Vo mentioned something interesting about drone users. According to him, there are two big communities when it comes to drones: hobbyists who hot-rod their drones and race them, and commercial users/photographers. But there are also remote control enthusiasts, parents who buy them as toys for their kids and discover a love of flight, and tinkerers who just like to build things. There is no uniting thread to drone users, Vo says—and despite drones increasing in popularity, he's seeing more DIY drones than store-bought ones. Vo admits he expected it to be the other way around, moving from modded hobbyist craft toward slick, off-the-shelf models anyone can buy and fly. "It kind of confuses me that the hobbyists/ DIY builders are increasing in popularity rather than [drones] becoming more commoditized," he says.

Drones at Sentien Robotics

When it comes to his day job at Sentien Robotics, it's all about the swarms. If you haven't heard of drone swarms before, think of a fleet of autonomous flying quadcopters carrying out coordinated tasks, like sweeping a construction site for inventory. Because of how cheap, stable, and relatively easy they are to fly, a swarm of flying drones can carry out a lot of tasks more efficiently than a squad of earthbound humans, especially when it comes to getting a bird's-eye view. One of Sentien's chief interests is in "creating AI software that acts as an air traffic controller that can be used on off-the-shelf drones," with the goal of multi-UAS (unmanned aerial system) operations. Fleet management is a big challenge, since swarms are still hampered by human involvement: "One reason why swarms are so difficult is because of the level of human involvement," says Vo. He mentions changing batteries, taking them outside, setting them up, and other simple tasks that drones can't do themselves.
One solution Sentien is working on currently is a "drone aircraft carrier": a box full of hangars where drones can charge with a robot arm that moves each drone onto the box's roof when it's time for it to go into rotation. When another drone returns from its mission, the same robot arm places the drone into the hangar so it can charge up. Vo drew some parallels between this "aircraft carrier" design and Amazon's recent patent for a "drone hive," which is meant to be stationed in a city and act like an HQ for delivery drones.

The Future of Drones

Speaking about the future of drone tech, Vo said that it may not be too long before small, autonomous drones begin to act like personal assistants, rather than remote-controlled flying toys. He mentions the DJi Spark, a new drone that can take off, land in your palm, and take orders based on gestures, rather than verbal commands or a joystick. Breaking down the barrier of touch is an important step, and makes the interactions between humans and drones more intimate. "How are we moving away from a drone using joysticks to having a drone as a personal companion?" asks Vo. "It's a future that doesn't exist because autonomy hasn't been injected in our lives. Is it because the technology isn't there, or because we're not ready yet?." Vo sees humans adapting to the tech just as much as we tailor it to adapt to human needs: he brings up AI personal assistants like Siri and Google Home, and notes that people begin to change their behavior (like speech patterns) when interacting with them. It's all part of integrating the technology into our lives.

Christopher Vo is a robotics scientist leading research and development at Sentien Robotics. His work is primarily in the area of robustness, scalability, and performance for autonomous flying robotic systems. In 2014, Christopher received his Ph.D. in Computer Science from George Mason University, where he developed efficient algorithms for the control and monitoring of robot swarms. He is President of the DC Area Drone User Group, one of the largest educational networks of civilian drone users in the mid-Atlantic. Through his efforts at the DC Area Drone User Group, he has taught hundreds of hobbyists and professionals how to build and safely operate a drone of their own.

You can check out Chris on LinkedIn and Facebook, and learn more about Escape Velocity (September 1st-3rd) on their website!