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Using Flying Robots to Create a Virtual Reality

Nora Ayanian is developing a virtual world with the use of quadrotors
June 24, 2015 —

ATC Lab Drones (Image: Courtesy of ATC Lab)

From a distance, they sound like a horde of angry wasps, but the quadrotors that are being developed at USC are being used to revolutionize the film industry and the art of warfare among countless of other areas. Quadrotors are airborne machines held up by a series of propellers. The user can control four propellers to lift and maneuver the lightweight structure from the ground. Unlike toy helicopters, the “flying robots” are autonomous machines that do not require remote controls. 

Nora Ayanian, the Gabilan Assistant Professor of Computer Science at USC Viterbi, is using quadrotors to create virtual reality and 3-D imaging. By equipping the quadrotor with a camera, Dr. Ayanian turns the quadrotors into the optimal recording device that can be used to recreate digital models. By observing human interaction and teamwork, Ayanian is inspired to better coordinate the quadrotors to successfully work together. 

Working alongside Mark Bolas, director for mixed reality research at the Institute for Creative Technologies, Ayanian is implementing this technology for military usage. Currently, quadrotors are being used by the military for surveillance. However, Ayanian is reinventing the use of quadrotors in the military by using quadrotors as part of training. Generally, custom-built military training environments can cost millions of dollars taken directly from military funding. Soldiers that are deployed outside of the country do not have the same access to these custom built environments. Current virtual reality goggles prevent soldiers from seeing anything outside of their virtual world, making teamwork impossible. Using the quadrotors, each soldier’s relative position is captured and imported into the virtual reality world, enabling their ability to work as a team. The quadrotors can create and capture 3-D imaging for military training, making it more cost efficient and portable. However, an issue arises when multiple quadrotors must be used to gain complete access to the training grounds. An increase in the numbers of quadrotors can increase productivity, but it also increases the amount of communication required among the robots and the energy they consume, thereby causing delays. However, Ayanian is currently tackling this problem by prohibiting unnecessary communication between robots that are spread far apart.

Ayanian is also working with fellow USC Viterbi computer scientist, Hao Li, to capture 3-D images of animals. Instead of bringing the animals to the animation labs, this technology allows workers to bring the studio to the animals to observe the way they move and behave in order to create more realistic films. The images produced are used to create animations of animals in movies similar to “Madagascar,” which can eventually make its way to our USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Nora Ayanian (Photo Credit: Will Taylor)

Of course, the same technology can also be used in our very own Coliseum! Quadrotors can create a three-dimensional instant replay from every angle.

As Trojans, we take pride in our outstanding academics and our world renowned athletic teams--especially our football team. With the quadrotors in action, football fanatics and referees can monitor the entire game from every angle to minimize the margin of error and ensure each team will earn the points they deserve. This means that within several years, all eyes (and quadrotors) will be on the ball during all home games.