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Students’ Mini Chopper Wins Silver in Competition

'HAWK' Designed for Search, Rescue, Surveillance

UMass Lowell Image
Computer Science Ph.D. student Zhongli Liu, left, and Asst. Prof. Xinwen Fu hold a prototype of the remotely operated 'HAWK' mini chopper.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

An aerial wireless kit designed by UMass Lowell students and mounted on a miniature programmable helicopter won the silver medal during last fall’s Association for Computing Machinery Student Research Competition (ACM-SRC) in Las Vegas.

Computer science doctoral students Zhongli Liu and Yinjie Chen presented their project — called the “HAWK” — during MobiCom 2011, a top academic conference on wireless networks. The competition was sponsored by Microsoft Research.

“HAWK is the first autonomous mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV, designed for search, rescue and surveillance that is based on a mini helicopter instead of a mini airplane,” says Computer Science Asst. Prof. Xinwen Fu. 

“For example, HAWK can be used to search for and locate a hiker or motorist lost in the woods via his or her smartphone, even if the smartphone could not receive a signal,” says Fu. “HAWK achieves this by collecting and analyzing the smartphone’s probing wireless signal while it cruises the sky overhead.”

The chopper is based on the DraganFlyer X6, which costs between $10,000 and $26,000. It is equipped with a Nokia n900 smartphone that Liu and Chen converted into a wireless “sniffer.” The chopper can carry payloads of up to one pound. The Nokia n900 can also take still pictures or video that can be downloaded in real time to the operator’s computer.

HAWK can be programmed to follow a specified route using waypoints plotted on Google Earth, says Liu.

“It can be used to survey a specific area without the help of any positioning infrastructure,” she says. “We conducted experiments to validate HAWK’s ability to localize a target. Our results matched our theoretical analysis very well, and we were able to achieve a localization accuracy of five meters [17 feet] on average.”

Watch a video of the HAWK’s field test at the UMass Lowell YouTube Channel.

A Team Effort

At the MobiCom conference Liu and Chen first competed in a poster session, which was open to more than 300 graduate and undergraduate students from across the country. They were among the three finalists selected by the ACM-SRC committee to compete in an oral presentation session that same day. The winners were announced during the conference’s banquet. 

Computer Science Assoc. Prof. Benyuan Liu and Ph.D. students Xian Pan and Junwei Huang also participated in MobiCom 2011. Prof. Fu is the faculty adviser for all four students and is collaborating with Prof. Liu on the project.

In addition to the silver medal and $300 in cash, Zhongli Liu won a travel award of $500 from the ACM-SRC.