2014 Winner: Outstanding Achievement In Applied Technology And Innovation Sponsored By SAIT
Evolving Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Dr. Alex Ramirez-Serrano’s passion for mobile robotics, now more commonly referred to as unmanned vehicles, began when he saw the first release of Star Wars as a kid. Since then his curiosity and vision for robotics flourished.
“As a kid I always wanted to work on something that you can see, feel and that would make the world a better place,” Ramirez-Serrano says.
After his first introduction into science fiction, Ramirez-Serrano discovered the writings of Isaac Asimov. Through Asimov’s books, Ramirez-Serrano was inspired by what the future of human and robotic interaction could be. Accompanying this futuristic vision is a great respect for the imaginative and practical work of Leonardo da Vinci.
“To see the interesting designs that he had, even flying machines with wings and the first helicopter, many of those things never came to reality but the designs have inspired a number of developments and are even today so intriguing yet simple, ” he says.
Following his Passion
Ramirez-Serrano started his work with robotics in Mexico where he worked on a research thesis designing an industrial level hydraulic arm. He then worked on his Mechanical and Aerospace Masters degree in Chicago with a thesis on controlling the airflow over fighter planes unsteady wings using artificial intelligence methods to enable the performance of cutting edge maneuvers not possible a the time.
After Chicago, Ramirez-Serrano went back to Mexico where he pursued a second Masters in computer science and artificial intelligence. Upon completion he earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Toronto in the area of controlled robotics.
All of this academic work, plus industrial and research positions in Europe and the US, led him to the University of Calgary in 2002 where he started as an assistant professor.
Now a tenured full time professor, Ramirez-Serrano wears a second hat as the founder and president of 4Front Robotics Ltd. The robotics firm specializes in the development, commercialization and service of custom highly maneuverable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Creating a better UAV
Since the earliest modern UAV work in the 1950s, researchers started to develop UAV technology but needed to overcome many challenges, including flying, communicating and controlling them. As the technology evolved, Ramirez-Serrano saw the potential for UAVs to be used in critical applications in confined spaces such as search and rescue missions below the tree canopy.
“Many people started with aerial vehicles but for some reason everybody just focused on flying outside. Nobody really flies in caves and tunnels and that’s one thing we said, ‘there’s a need in these spaces, ’” he explains.
To achieve this, Ramirez-Serrano and his team developed sophisticated navigation algorithms, control mechanisms, studied the flow effects of diverse UAVs flying in confined spaces, and made use of a number of available technologies such as ring wings theory. These developments drastically improved the fly time, payload capabilities and maneuverability of their UAVs.
Ramirez explains how the vehicles fly using a furniture moving metaphor: “when you move furniture you don’t think, you just carry it and you go and start wiggling it and twisting it. “We started thinking of a way for a computer to take the exact shape of the aircraft, whatever that shape is, and wiggle it through the environment according to how it can fly.”
These advancements in UAV technology have allowed 4Front Robotics to develop a UAV capable of performing highly stable acrobatic maneuvers that no other vehicle can execute. The applications of this UAV technology are seemingly endless; including safe performance of any task that requires flying at low altitudes, in close proximity to objects or within confined spaces.
“Sometimes we need technology such as UAVs that can go there. There’s bad weather? There is no GPS? We don’t have a map of the environment? No problem; my UAV can actually go there because it can maneuver and navigate and I can provide the assistance right away.”
The Future of Drones
Ramirez-Serrano says the long-term goal of UAVs is to adapt as the system, environment, or mission changes.
“In engineering you hear a lot of people developing optimal solutions. I’m not against optimal solutions but I don’t really believe in them. An optimal solution for today may not be an optimal solution for tomorrow.”
In our changing environment there is a need for technology that can autonomously change and adapt with the circumstances, despite system failures. Ramirez-Serrano says this is the future of his technology.