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Quadrotor gets autonomous navigation capabilities with Google's Project Tango


May 22, 2014

Google's Project Tango lets this simple quadrotor autonomously navigate its environment

Google's Project Tango lets this simple quadrotor autonomously navigate its environment

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We’ve seen a lot of eye- and brain-catching robotics fun from the GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania, including a swarm of nano quadrotors playing the James Bond theme and a quadcopter swooping raptor-like onto prey. Dr. Vijay Kumar now gives us proof of concept of the utility of Google’s Project Tango in aerial systems by outfitting a quadrotor with the device to provide autonomous navigational capabilities.

Project Tango is a mobile device built upon the newest advances in computer vision to confer the ability to locate itself in space. Using cameras, depth sensors, and vision processors, the device is able to map a 3D representation of the surrounding world.

Kumar described the setup as “velcro-ing” Project Tango to the quadrotor – in other words, it didn’t take much to integrate the two components. While there aren’t any publications about this project yet (something to look forward to!), the lab created a video demonstrating the quadrotor reacting to various pushes and pulls and returning to its previous place in space. Additionally, it is also able to autonomously navigate from one point to another, detecting walls and the ground and avoiding crashing into either.

The laptop seen in the video is only used for visualization and to assign tasks, that is, there’s no “cheating.” The quadrotor, similarly, only has an inertial measurement unit and no other navigational aids other than Tango.

Referring back to the James Bond performance puts this demonstration in perspective. The orchestral maneuvers required Kumar to outfit each copter and the room with a system of mirrors, infrared lights, and cameras to provide location tracking. Similarly, GPS has its own drawbacks, as you likely have discovered in any big city with tall buildings.

Below is the video demonstrating a quadrotor maneuvering while equipped with Project Tango.

Source: University of Pennsylvania, via IEEE Spectrum

About the Author
Heidi Hoopes Heidi measures her life with the motley things she's done in the name of scientific exploration. While formally educated in biology and chemistry, informally she learns from adventures and hobbies with her family. Her simple pleasures in life are finding turtles while jogging and obsessively winnowing through her genetic data. All articles by Heidi Hoopes

Can't wait until this technology becomes a toy. It'd be cool to pick up a copter, put it in "trace" mode, and move it around a path in a room. Then set it down, put it in "replay" mode, and watch it follow the recorded path!


Project Tango is a cool platform, it's pretty much an android tablet with a bunch of sensors. Mobile computing has a ton of potential for robotics. I'm not sure what board Tango talks to but there is a $30 board called IOIO for Android made as a hobby by a Google employee that works sort of like Arduino only you can use native Android software without the Arduino ADK.

It won't be long before you could build something like this relatively cheaply.


Having lost my GPS signal just when I needed it most on more than one occasion (in central London), I have often wondered if it would be possible to supplement the satnav with local signals that replaced the satellite ones. Perhaps this Google Tango arrangement could be adapted to provide some back-up to the satnav, though I think it would take rather a lot of velcro-ing - but what a big market it would open up!).

Mel Tisdale

A while back I read about and watched the demo clip right here about something similar developed at a US university where some 15 - 20 quadrotors navigated themselves by relating only to one another. This was developed by students under guidance of an Indian professor. In fact the demo also included these devices playing a tune on a piano. So is this further development of that or what?


@pmshah Think of Tango as something like Microsoft's Kinect built into a tablet. It's creates a 3D model of the space around it.

It lets it to learn how to navigate inside a building for instance instead of using collision sensors and an algorithm like Roomba or something uses.

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