• CSAIL system lets users design and fabricate drones with a wide range of shapes and structures.

    This fall’s new Federal Aviation Administration regulations have made drone flight easier than ever for both companies and consumers. But what if the drones out on the market aren’t exactly what you want?

    A new system from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is the first to allow users to design, simulate, and build their own custom drone. Users can change the size, shape, and structure of their drone based on the specific needs they have for payload, cost, flight time, battery usage, and other factors.


    “This system opens up new possibilities for how drones look and function,” says MIT Professor Wojciech Matusik, who oversaw the project in CSAIL’s Computational Fabrication Group. “It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach for people who want to make and use drones for particular purposes.”

    The interface lets users design drones with different propellers, rotors, and rods. It also provides guarantees that the drones it fabricates can take off, hover and land — which is no simple task considering the intricate technical trade-offs associated with drone weight, shape, and control.

    “For example, adding more rotors generally lets you carry more weight, but you also need to think about how to balance the drone to make sure it doesn’t tip,” says PhD student Tao Du, who was first author on a related paper about the system. “Irregularly-shaped drones are very difficult to stabilize, which means that they require establishing very complex control parameters.”

    Du and Matusik co-authored a paper with PhD student Adriana Schulz, postdoc Bo Zhu, and Assistant Professor Bernd Bickel of IST Austria. It will be presented next week at the annual SIGGRAPH Asia conference in Macao, China.

    Today’s commercial drones only come in a small range of options, typically with an even number of rotors and upward-facing propellers. But there are many emerging use cases for other kinds of drones. For example, having an odd number of rotors might create a clearer view for a drone’s camera, or allow the drone to carry objects with unusual shapes.

    Designing these less conventional drones, however, often requires expertise in multiple disciplines, including control systems, fabrication, and electronics.

    “Developing multicopters like these that are actually flyable involves a lot of trial-and-error, tweaking the balance between all the propellers and rotors,” says Du. “It would be more or less impossible for an amateur user, especially one without any computer-science background.”

    But the CSAIL group’s new system makes the process much easier. Users design drones by choosing from a database of parts and specifying their needs for things like payload, cost, and battery usage. The system computes the sizes of design elements like rod lengths and motor angles, and looks at metrics such as torque and thrust to determine whether the design will actually work. It also uses an “LQR controller” that takes information about a drone’s characteristics and surroundings to optimize its flight plan.

    One of the project’s core challenges stemmed from the fact that a drone’s shape and structure (its “geometry”) is usually strongly tied to how it has been programmed to move (its “control”). To overcome this, researchers used what’s called an “alternating direction method,” which means that they reduced the number of variables by fixing some of them and optimizing the rest. This allowed the team to decouple the variables of geometry and control in a way that optimizes the drone’s performance.

    “Once you decouple these variables, you turn a very complicated optimization problem into two easy sub-problems that we already have techniques for solving,” says Du. He envisions future versions of the system that could proactively give design suggestions, like recommending where a rotor should go to accommodate a desired payload.

    “This is the first system in which users can interactively design a drone that incorporates both geometry and control,” says Nobuyuki Umetani, a research scientist at Autodesk, Inc., who was not involved in the paper. “This is very exciting work that has the potential to change the way people design.”

    The project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

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  • The Download, Feb 23, 2017: Immunotherapy Upgrade, Tesla’s Next Challenge, and Locating the Dark Web

    The most fascinating and important news in technology and innovation delivered straight to your inbox, every day.

    • by Jamie Condliffe
    • February 23, 2017

    Three Things You Need to Know Today

    CRISPR Makes a Promising Cancer Therapy More Potent
    A cancer treatment that uses modified immune cells may get a shot in the arm. Genetically engineered T-cells are being tuned to kill cancer, and initial tests show that they could work phenomenally well. But a new study published in Nature suggests that when the cells are engineered using CRISPR/Cas9 the tweaks can be made more carefully, resulting in T-cells that attack cancers for longer. The upshot: in mouse experiments, the CRISPR-tuned cells fought tumors even more effectively than regular engineered T-cells.

    Do you need The Download? Sign up here to get it for free in your inbox

    The Marketplace Turning Neighborhoods Into Power Plants
    A new renewables marketplace makes small-time energy moguls of homeowners. Virtual power plants promise to ease the intermittency issues of renewable energy, by using software and batteries to combine separate solar panels as a single large source. The new Distributed Energy Exchange, being trialled in Australia, allows homeowners to connect their domestic solar set-ups to such a scheme. When excess power is being generated somewhere on the grid, smart devices enable homeowners' hardware to offer up spare battery capacity—for a fee.

    Transparency Alone Won't Fix Algorithmic Bias
    The fight against unfair algorithms will require a multi-pronged approach. Algorithms invariably contain bias—from the people that write them, as well as the data they’re based on—and a commonly suggested solution is to demand transparency to ensure people understand them. But in a thoughtful essay comparing algorithms to bureaucracy, writer Adam Clair points out that such an approach will lead to people gaming the system—which, in turn, will prompt engineers to continually tweak their code, ensuring that it always remains opaque. There are, however, other approaches to making algorithms accountable.

    Ten Fascinating Things  

    Tesla's described the big plans required to keep its promise and deliver the Model 3 this year—but it may need a cash injection to pull it off.

    Retailers are busy developing fancy new technological ways to sell products to shoppers. Consumers couldn’t care less.

    You may not think it, but in the Republican heartland of the Great Plains there's a desire to treat the planet better. Just don’t call it climate change policy.

    Replacing call center workers with AI isn’t just about getting software to work—it’s also about ensuring the whole phone call sounds right.

    What’s 10 feet long, 5 feet wide, and full of almost nothing? Lockheed’s new space-mimicking test chamber.

    The murky world of the dark web is designed to enable secrecy—but a pair of University of Oxford researchers plan to trace the physical transactions that it facilitates.

    Here’s how politics itself could put the reliability of future elections at risk.

    Tech companies are offering us new ways to communicate in the workplace. Truth is, we’re so wedded to phone calls and e-mail that we don’t use them.

    EU policies that encourage the burning of wood for power generation are actually harming the environment.

    How about this for an outlandish hack: malware controls the LED blinks of a computer to relay information via a drone’s camera.

    Quote of the Day 

    "Will there be a new way for the working class of the future to earn a paycheck? Sure. Playing video games."

    — Writer Clive Thompson explains why playing computer games may yet become a legitimate occupation.

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  • The Matrice 600 (M600) is DJI’s new flying platform designed for professional aerial photography and industrial applications. It is  built to closely integrate with a host of powerful DJI technologies, including the A3 flight controller, Lightbridge 2 transmission  system, Intelligent Batteries and Battery Management system, for maximum performance and quick setup.

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