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Innervating Smaller, Smarter, Safer…and Bluer Robots and Drones

Innervating Smaller, Smarter, Safer…and Bluer Robots and Drones

Published on AUVSI.org

By: Dawn Zoldi (Colonel, USAF Ret.)
To Innervate means to “put the nerves into” something. In humans, nerves are a key part of the nervous system, which also includes the brain and spinal cord. This system has three overlapping functions: sensory input (receiving information, processing and interpreting it), integration (extracting information and sending it out for an appropriate response), and motor output (initiating a response).
Robots have brains and nerves too, which they use to sense, think and act. In the case of drones, this critical “nervous system” consists of the vehicle’s autopilot and the communication networks that essentially control how it senses, thinks and acts. Robots must be innervated in order to perform these 3 key cognitive functions essential to agile and reliable autonomy.
ModalAIs VOXL 2, when integrated with Doodle Labs Smart Radios, provides end-to-end innervation for uncrewed aircraft vehicles (UAVs) or drones, uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and other mobile robotics. A recent collaboration between these two Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) Blue UAS Framework companies has accelerated the development of smaller, smarter, and safer… and Bluer drones.

Sense, Think, Act

Sight remains one of the powerful human senses. It allows us to see the world around us. For a robot, its “eyes” (photoreceptors) consist of sensors.
A variety of sensors, especially when used in combination, can provide for three dimensional and dynamic sensing, the key to autonomous operations. Fisheye lenses combined with a global shutter sensor capture raw data used to locate objects in a certain space in GPS-denied environments. A 4K high-resolution sensor can produce 30 frames-per-second video that helps to classify objects in any environment. Time-of-Flight (ToF) and stereo sensors capture environmental depth data in high resolution, which helps map distances to objects. ModalAI boasts a wide variety of such image sensors.
The brain must then process the data these receptors have taken in. For autonomous systems, this brain consists of an on-board companion computer. It enables the drone or robot to both “perceive,” or think, and then act on its own. ModalAI’s VOXL 2, a Blue UAS Framework 5G-connected autopilot, has more AI computing capability to do this than any other similar product globally.
VOXL 2 is the world’s smallest flying supercomputer, with 4 times the computing power of the previous autopilot generation. At only 16 grams, it is smaller than a business card and lighter than a AA battery. Powered by the Qualcomm® FlightTM RB5 5G platform, VOXL 2 can plug-and-play with any of ModalAI’s family of image sensors. The VOXL 2 integrates the PX4 real-time flight controller, a state-of-the-art CPU, video encoder, GPU and Neural Processing Unit (NPU), with ModalAI’s open VOXL SDK. The SDK comes complete with the autonomous behaviors required to safely and reliably avoid obstacles, including mapping and planning software and Collision Prevention.
For drones, several other critical systems come into play. The flight controller, an on-board sub-system, communicates with the companion computer. This adds contextual data such as speed, direction, and altitude. When coupled with electronic speed controllers (ESCs), the flight controller also controls actuation or motor speeds. ModalAI’s VOXL 2 provides a single unit solution for all these capabilities.
For a robot to act, it needs to communicate accurately and effectively. A reliable communications radio is essential for a robot to send and receive accurate, low latency high bandwidth data in real-time. The Smart Radio increases the efficiency and functionality of how a drone can act by transmitting high definition, critical streams like video, or sensor data over extremely long distances. Drones that lack a dependable connection can pose a safety risk (when flying in urban areas), or compromise the integrity and safety of a mission.  To further enable action, long-range, high-bandwidth communications radios provide the critical communications link between the drone and its ground control station. Doodle Labs radios are uniquely designed to meet the needs of drone systems, leveraging its innovative and patented Mesh Rider waveform, they provide reliable, high-throughput mesh data links over long distances in SWaP-optimized form factors.
Doodle Labs’ Smart Radios enable resilient private mesh networks without the high operating cost of LTE or the interference of standard WiFi. The radios use Mesh Rider®, a powerful patented smart mobile mesh wireless broadband technology designed for mobile robotics.  Smart Radios are available in a number of form-factors, including the extremely low SWAP-C (small in size, weight, power and cost) mini-OEM and nano-OEM, which are a tailored fit for even the smallest drones. The Smart Radio Series is available in all Unlicensed and Federal frequency bands. The Helix Smart Radio covers 6 bands, M1-M6 (1625-2500 MHz) in a single radio, and was purpose-built to meet all of the requirements of the Blue UAS program for military use-cases.
Mesh Rider incorporates built-in intelligence to maintain reliable connectivity in challenging radio frequency (RF) environments. It incorporates a spectrum scanner that monitors in-band interference, provides dynamic filtration and switches channels to ensure reliable connectivity. This, when combined with the Smart Radio’s scalable self-forming and self-healing mesh networks that can support hundreds of nodes and multi-hop relay, allows for a variety of drone applications, like swarming or extending operational range.
The 0.7 ounce Helix mini-OEM simultaneously meets high throughput requirements by combining C2 (command and control), telemetry and high bandwidth data  on a single link. Its advanced traffic prioritization on its Ultra Reliable Low Latency Channel (URLLC) ensures control while concurrently streaming low latency / high bandwidth data like 4K video at up to 100 megabits per second at distances over 12 miles. Data encryption provides further operational protection and reliability.

Smaller, Smarter, Safer…And Bluer!

ModalAI and Doodle Labs recently announced the compatibility of the Helix Smart Radio and the VOXL 2 autopilot. This means developers can now leverage the Blue UAS Framework-approved combined tech of both companies to fully innervate their drones and robots. The DIU Blue UAS Framework focuses on best in class, secure supply chain, interoperable UAS components, and software. This year, DIU publicly launched the Blue UAS Framework 2.0 effort.
ModalAI, and it's VOXL products, have been the core autopilot for both generations of DIU’s Blue UAS Framework program. “The Blue UAS Framework program has driven the resurgence of domestic UAS capabilities. We are proud our advanced autopilots have been a part of this since the beginning,” said Chad Sweet, CEO and co-founder of ModalAI, Inc.
Doodle Lab’s Helix Smart Radio is currently the only radio that meets Blue UAS Framework 2.0 requirements.
“Doodle Labs developed the Helix Smart Radio with the direct support of the Defense Innovation Unit. We’ve been invested in the Blue UAS program from the start,” said Nimesh Parikh, CEO and Founder of Doodle Labs. “In our commitment to supporting the growth of the drone industry, we’ve partnered with ModalAI to further reduce the complexity of new drone systems coming to the market.”
An integrated solution that combines VOXL 2 with the Helix Smart Radio provides the best of all worlds to developers - especially those desiring their platforms to stay NDAA-compliant. This powerful combination of cyber-secure and trusted technology provides developers with the simplification and consolidation they need. Integrating this proven tech into hardware solutions will accelerate development timelines to bring the smallest, smartest, safest and Bluest drones to market sooner.
For more information about ModalAI, visit https://modalai.com
For more information about Doodle Labs, visit http://www.doodlelabs.com