Doctoral Student’s Research Focuses on Drones

Posted: April 22, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: April 23, 2014 at 6:44 am

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By Catherine Probst

The Washington, D.C., region is a hotbed of personal drone development, and PhD student Christopher Vo is getting in on the action. The drones he develops—and he’s built nearly 15 of them—are called quadcopters because they are lifted and propelled by four rotors. You may have even seen Vo’s quadcopter zooming through the air when he was producing an aerial video of the Fairfax Campus.

Also called unmanned aerial vehicles, drones are typically associated with military operations, but Vo’s research takes a different approach. Today’s small drones, often no larger than a Frisbee, are sophisticated little machines that can do lots of things, such as carry high-definition cameras and navigate between waypoints via global positioning systems.

Mason doctoral student Christopher Vo with one of his quadcopters. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason doctoral student Christopher Vo with one of his quadcopters. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

For the past two years, Vo has been working on motion planning algorithms that allow drones to fly autonomously using the data from an attached camera. He likens his research to herding a flock of sheep. A shepherd faces many obstacles and restraints while trying to gather his sheep. By pairing the drone with artificially intelligent shepherding behaviors, it is possible to perform the shepherding task autonomously or assist a shepherd in his tasks like a robotic sheepdog.

“When used correctly, unmanned aerial vehicles can provide perspectives with our sensors that we may not otherwise have,” says Vo. “This information can be used to assist people or ground robots to accomplish their goals.”

For the past year, Vo has served as director of education for the D.C. Area Drone User Group. With more than 700 members, the group seeks to promote the responsible use of flying robots for community service, artistic, entrepreneurial and recreational purposes. “One of the main goals of the group is to educate people about the technology of drones and their socially beneficial uses,” says Vo. “Drones get such a bad rap, but there are so many great uses for them such as monitoring endangered species, inspecting bridges for cracks and structural failures, search and rescue, or scientific research.”

Vo notes there aren’t yet any Federal Aviation Administration regulations against flying small drones. “Right now, small drones operate under the same rules as radio-controlled airplanes and are typically supposed to fly below 400 feet,” he explains. The Drone User Group is “thinking of ways to push the positive uses of drones and dispel the negative assumptions that drones are only used to invade people’s privacy.”

Vo also hosts workshops and seminars to teach individuals how to build and safely use drones. “We’re all about promoting the use of flying robots for artistic, humanitarian and recreational purposes.”

Eventually, Vo would like to start his own business in the drone industry. In particular, he is interested in using drones to work on motion control for cinematography. “It’s an exciting time for the future of drones,” he says. “We could achieve perspectives that would be difficult or even impossible before, such as sending cameras through small openings, filming dangerous stunt action or following a subject very closely.”

This article ran in a slightly different form in the spring 2014 Mason Spirit.

Write to Colleen Kearney Rich at ckearney@gmu.edu

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