Stewart’s current project with JPL is
designed to help map the surface of Mars,
the so-called Red Planet. Think of it as laying the groundwork for a Martian Google
Maps. The autonomous nature of the project,
dubbed Mars 2020, is a key goal. The user
can tell the drone where to go and then relax
until the data is sent back.
Christiansen is currently working for
Apple in a non-drone department. But his
work with a startup company called iDrone
got Apple’s attention. His main project was
developing a drone app store for iDrone. He
says the programming work is about the
same for each company.
Like most fields in computer science, drone
programming is wide open and growing at
a tremendous rate. Apps designed for drones
are a hot market. With most drone companies, the main goal is to make the machines
simpler to operate.
“For consumers, it needs to be easy to
use and inexpensive,” Stewart says. “Like
an Apple product, you need to be able to pick
something up and use it without instructions
— the days of the manual are gone.”
While the sleek, futuristic designs of
the drones make them unmistakable and
alluring, the computer scientist is needed
to improve control, whether it’s from a tablet,
smartphone or the classic remote. With one
thumb, the drone pilot moves the altitude
and throttle, and the other controls the axis
of tilt and direction. Augmented reality (AR)
apps are available at the Apple store and
allow users to pilot drones from their
devices. Drones with cameras broadcast
what it is seen on each device’s screen.
Most drones are about the size of a
laptop but others are quite small.
Christiansen’s favorite of his five drones is
the Blade Nano QX. The machine fits in the
palm of the hand and is surprisingly durable
despite its delicate appearance.
“It is so small that you can fly it into
people and it will not hurt them,”
Christiansen says. “And it’s really easy to
learn: There are only a few main moves you
can do with a quadcopter. You can rotate,
go up, down, backward, left or right.”
Quad and tricopter drones operate with
throttle and axis tilt to “see” their surround-
ings via sensors for better control. During
a recent demo, Christiansen’s quadcopter
used the space lines on top of a Purdue
parking garage to help navigate the area.
The pictures sent into the computer are
called the optical flow. The drone navigates
the area below to help stay in control while
the user decides where it should go next.
More advanced drones use global
positioning satellites to help get them from
point A to point B, but cameras still help
them avoid crashing.
When Stewart started working with
drones about six years ago, the market was
almost all military. He had to develop the
hobby from scratch by building his own
drones. Today, drones are huge in the civilian space and will only get bigger. “There
is no avoiding it,” he says.
HOT TOPICS FOR DEBATE
Online footage from drones can easily be
found. Some content is silly. There’s the
video of a guy who hooked up dozens of
quadcopters that exerted enough force to
levitate his lawn chair with him in it. The
video catapulted the notion of drones routinely flying humans around, bypassing the
romantic idea of flying cars and jetpacks.
“I don’t think flying cars or drones
carrying people will ever be a thing,”
Christiansen says. “Drones and cars crash
all the time. Drones break a lot. If your car
breaks down, you pull over to the side of the
road. If a flying car breaks, it’s crashing to
Stewart believes that anything is pos-
sible, however. With proper regulations and
improvements in technology, autonomous
drones could take people to their desired
location. Technology isn’t there yet but far
into the future, it’s a possibility, Stewart
In the interim, companies like Facebook
and AeroVironment are developing lightweight planes with massive wingspans
equipped to provide Internet access to users
thousands of feet below. Drones are also
being developed to aid humans in emergency situations. The aerobots can enter a
burning building to look for survivors while
firefighters combat the blaze from
Privacy is perhaps the biggest drone
issue. If a drone carrying a camera flies over
your house during a pool party, what are
the legalities? Christiansen and Stewart
believe lawmakers on the ground are
responsible for setting up regulations.
Companies also are being proactive. DJI, a
Chinese tech company that produces
drones, allows people to register their
property as mini no-fly zones via its
“The drones literally are unable to fly
over your house,” Christiansen says. “The
computer onboard using the GPS will say,
‘That’s a no-fly zone. I can’t go in there.’”
Still, there always will be operators
using technology — including drones —for
unsavory purposes. “Technology can be
used for bad things; technology can be used
for good things,” Stewart says. “It’s up to
the people to decide how to use it.”
The Super Bowl of events for CS majors is
the annual BoilerMake Hackathon (see page
20). The 36-hour event consists of marathon
coding to fuel new apps, websites, programs
and platforms. The best creations win
money and tech prizes.
Like Stewart and Christiansen, more
students are expected to look at drones as
a project or even career option. The
Department of Computer Science
announced earlier this semester that a
drone lab will be set up for students interested in working with the machines as part
of its expansion initiative.
Stewart will still be in his 20s when the
Mars 2020 is launched. Even for him, it’s
hard to predict where drones will be on the
technological front. He expects them to be
among the market’s leaders, especially
drones used outside of the military.
Quadcopters have mobility but limited
range. They can fly for only about three to
10 minutes before having to land.
Quadcopters are also energy drains, while
planes are more suited for long distance.
Stewart recently built a drone plane
that can travel two hours. “The possibilities
and opportunities are endless,” he says.