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Inventor's helicopter becomes robotic eye-in-the-sky

July 2, 1996
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Dick Wilson

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- Helicopters save lives in search and rescue operations, drop aerial lifelines to the sea, pull up stranded victims caught by deadly floods, and even stalk suspected criminals from the air. But can they fly these dangerous missions without a human pilot?


Omead Amidi thinks so. Amidi and a team of researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University designed a craft that can fly by itself, piloted by a set of computers, cameras and navigation devices.

Helicopter demonstration

"I started thinking about aerial robotics, using a copter for precise hovering for inspection and that type of application," Amidi said.

Amidi began his research indoors using a small electric motor copter linked to a computer and a hand-controlled device. Graduating to the larger craft made by Yamaha of Japan for crop dusting, Amidi's team outfitted it with the computer guidance system.

In the auto-copter, a global positioning system and video cameras are linked to several on-board computers to maneuver to specific sites. (119K AIFF or WAV sound)

Helicopter parts

Amidi said the computing equipment includes seven digital processors, a realtime processor, and image processing equipment, all built for this particular helicopter.

The team uses a conventional radio-control device, similar to those used by model airplane hobbyists, as a backup to the computer.

"The copter could go out, using GPS to a certain point, get there, switch on its vision, and look around until it detects the object or the victim," Amidi said. "Then, once it finds it, provide a stable view until real help arrives. That is my dream mission."

The next step: test flights over the horizon, and out of sight, with a safe return.

Potential commercial uses include inspection of power lines. And, if the autonomous helicopter really catches on, it could give television traffic reporters cause to worry about job security.

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