U drone lab explores low-cost alternatives

For more on these self-flying planes, check out next week’s issue of the Daily.

Rebecca Harrington

Thor, a yellow model airplane took off into the sky, guided by a pilot with a remote control on the ground. Once it reached a safe trajectory, he flipped a switch, and no longer needed to control it.

Thor flew by itself.

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle research group is the University of Minnesota’s drone lab. They don’t fly the large, jet-sized planes from the movies — they are researching the low-cost versions that are much smaller.

Thor is the lab’s main experimental UAV, and it only weighs about 4 pounds.

Andrei Dorobantu, the lab’s summer project lead, said this affordable alternative makes for easy deployment. All they need to fly Thor is a laptop, a remote control, a black bag full of modems and wires and two people.

“That’s the best part about it. If we want to fly, we just go,” Dorabantu said, though he added they can only fly if weather permits. 

This particular Friday, they performed straight-line control tests. Will Johnson, the lab’s software lead, said the day’s breeze was actually welcome during the test because he programmed Thor to adjust to wind and turbulence when flying in a straight line.

It was a successful flight test.

After the test, the five men got to “play” with an old UAV named Odin, which they used as a training plane for new pilots.

But for Arion Mangio flying is nothing new. In addition to being able to fly model airplanes, he has an actual pilot’s license.

As the trainer plane took to the sky, Mangio made it do flips and twists.

“He’s just showing off now,” Dorobantu said.

For more on the U’s drone lab, check out Tuesday’s issue of the Daily.