A strange aircraft buzzes through the air at Siemens Corporate Research laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. Basically a square wire frame, it is driven by a tiny engine block with four helicopter rotors on top. The vehicle is called a quadcopter. Using lasers, it scans windows, walls, machines; optical sensors and video cameras register every architectural detail. It maneuvers through the air on preplanned paths, ready to sense and avoid obstacles that may appear in its path. The data it collects is processed to create precise 3D models of the environment.
Also known as “Fly & Inspect,” the quadcopter project is the product of a collaborative development effort between computer scientist Yakup Genc at Siemens Corporate Technology in Princeton and robotics researcher Nicholas Roy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. The project is designed to yield a system capable of autonomously acquiring data and building digital models of complex environments such as baggage handling facilities, processing plants, and factory halls. Such 3D digital models would then be used to assess service needs or simulate major renovations. Genc and Roy expect Fly & Inspect technology to make this process efficient and robust. Quadcopter could also inspect hard-to-reach places such as wind parks and power masts for signs of wear or damage, as it can be trained to recognize features such as cracks. “At this point, the device still needs a human operator with a remote control unit,” says Genc. “But we expect that it will soon function autonomously using its optical sensors.”