Perfecting quadrocopters at JPL

Sophie Kupiec-Weglinski

Christian Stewart ’15 spent his summer as a paid intern at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, part of California Institute of Technology, working on quadrocopters, which are small four-rotor helicopters. JPL, funded by the United States government, is the laboratory that created innovations such as the Mars Rover, “Curiosity” and all the robots used by NASA. The problem with the quadrocopters is that they are extremely unstable when flown by hand and rely on undependable GPS.

Stewart worked five days a week alongside undergraduates and post-doctorates with the goal of replacing the power-hungry computers on the quadrocopters and putting in place a lighter, more efficient processor.

Stewart and his group also made the quadrocopter rely on the more dependable vision based algorithm, where a 3D map is created for the quadrocopter to maneuver with.

Possible uses for the quadrocopter range from  inspecting pipelines, buildings and cranes to scouting through forests.

“There are really unlimited things you can do with this sort of a system,” Stewart said.

During his time at JPL, Stewart was also able to present a demo of the quadrocopter system to the Head of JPL, Charles Elachi.

His work was considered so successful that JPL invited him back to work throughout the year to continue the development.

“I’ve seen so many cool things, from the clone of Curiosity used to test software before it is uploaded to the real Rover, to new mission development,” Stewart said.

His road to JPL started when Stewart presented his civilian autonomous micro airplane project at the Los Angeles Science Fair, where he had the idea to take military technology and put it into an affordable plane which can be used for forestry, industrial and land uses.

His presentation caught the attention of a CalTech scientist, and he was invited to be an intern at one of the laboratories. Stewart worked on low-noise amplifiers, which are devices that amplify noise without adding any interference. His mentor then forwarded Stewart’s resume to scientists at JPL.

“I’m torn between seeing Curiosity in the Mars Yard, and taking a tour of the Mission Control floor,” he said on his favorite experience during the summer internship.