A U.S. Air Force Quadrotor Expert Explains How Their Robots Save LivesS

Captain Wilfred Noel is living a geek's dream. As Deputy Chief with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Weapon Dynamics and Control Sciences Branch, he oversees 19 research programs covering everything from guidance technology to advanced munitions navigation. And he also works as an expert in quadrotor autonomy development with The Air Force Collaboratory, a new online platform where anyone looking to get involved with AF's lifesaving research can work with real Air Force experts to solve three unclassified projects. Capt. Noel wants to help you make quadrotors smarter, so I shot him a few questions via email and he kindly took a break from building robots to answer them.

Q: You have both a Bachelors and Masters in Electrical Engineering, the latter from the Air Force Institute of Technology. What got you started in the field?

A: I have always loved playing with new technology. I’m a true geek at heart. I built computers as a child and that grew into modifying stereo equipment, other electronics, and even cell phones. Having an EE degree just means I get to learn endlessly about something I’m truly passionate about.

Q: Why did you join the Air Force?

A: I really wanted to be a part of a larger community that could have far-reaching impacts. The dream of every engineer (I think) is to always be at the front of something new and exciting. I get that every day in the Air Force, and I get to do it in ways that support and defend everyone around me.

Q: You work with the Air Force to develop quadrotors for Simultaneous Location and Mapping. How do you apply your engineering and programming background to the work?

A: We are constantly evaluating new ways to do things in the lab. Our team not only builds, modifies and evaluates the quadrotors we use in the lab, but almost all of our software is developed organically. We are the ones doing the work, and we are the ones that need to have the expertise.

Q: In your work with the Air Force, you’ve directed and conducted research in advanced munitions and written software for real-time tracking in urban environments. How did you get involved with The Air Force Collaboratory?

A: Our team was contacted because of the research we are conducting in autonomous technologies. I was leading and involved in several efforts concerning the use of quadrotors to demonstrate those technologies. We leapt at the chance to help out any way we could.

Q: Quadrotors can autonomously map indoor and outdoor structures. Do you see them being used regularly to save lives?

A: Absolutely. The ultimate goal is that quadrotors and, in turn, any robotics technology, can be used in a situation that is too dangerous for humans. That could mean locating stranded or immobilized people, or evaluating environments [in which] a human could not survive.

Q: Are you discovering other practical applications for quadrotor technology?

A: Yes. We’ve spoken with many researchers both within and outside of the D.O.D. [Department of Defense] about the many uses for autonomous quadrotors and other robots. We’ve seen topics ranging all the way from search and rescue and indoor geo-location to multiple robots being used as vacuums or delivery methods in large warehouses. We’ve seen robots use for water rescue, for bomb disposal, or for research in advanced prosthetics. There really is no limit to using these autonomous technologies to help people in every-day scenarios.

Q: The Air Force Collaboratory’s research focuses on Search and Rescue, quadrotors, and GPS technology. Can you describe the real-world impact of the research?

A: The Air Force Collaboratory’s research efforts could be used in so many different ways. I could see it having immediate impacts in aiding the emergency response, indoor and underground exploration, and alternate navigation communities. This research could be instrumental in locating or replacing humans in any inhospitable environment.

Q: What other kinds of technology are you observing? What else is out there that will significantly change lives?

A: The biggest thing I see on the forefront is the use of alternate navigation techniques. This is especially true in situations where GPS is not possible. In scenarios where people are trapped underground or in collapsing buildings, using these signals of opportunity provides a quick and accurate way to navigate and locate those in harm’s way.

Q: Who do you think should join The Air Force Collaboratory?

A: Everyone! That’s the beauty of this project and the way it’s being presented and opened up. We can all join and we can all contribute. We welcome as many different ideas and viewpoints as possible. There are no dumb ideas or questions.

Join the The Air Force Collaboratory for your chance to work with Capt. Noel to help develop this amazing tech. Click right here to find out how you can start.