brittany duncan

A professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is developing drone software that is designed to ease people’s discomfort around the technology.

Brittany Duncan, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering, earned an approximately $550,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program award from the National Science Foundation to develop software that allows drones to communicate through movement.

“As we look toward the future and new uses for drones, they’re going to need to be able to intelligently interact with people who aren’t controlling them,” Duncan says in a press release from UNL.

First, she and her team will conduct surveys to understand what people want drones to communicate. Next, they’ll identify drone movements that people intuitively understand; for example, Duncan’s previous work found most people understand that a drone’s circling in a tightening downward spiral indicates that it’s landing.

For other tasks, researchers will ask people unfamiliar with drones to identify or create movements they believe communicate those tasks. The team will search for commonalities and then develop software that allows drones to make those movements. They’ll use videos posted online to test people’s ability to understand what the movements communicate.

Duncan is concentrating on movement as opposed to speech because, unlike speech capabilities, movement doesn’t require additional hardware – thereby limiting weight and extending battery life, explains UNL. Additionally, many settings, such as crowds or warehouses, may be too loud to hear a drone, whereas in quiet environments, speech may be disruptive.

Duncan’s team will also identify people’s comfort levels under different conditions, such as in enclosed or open spaces and with varying drone sizes. With those parameters defined, they will create software that prevents drones from flying too close to people. According to UNL, the software packages could be made available to commercial drone operators.

“The idea is that this could be the next optional software,” Duncan says. “It tells people the things they should be concerned about with drones and makes you a more conscientious drone operator.”

She also envisions drones providing useful services through the ability to communicate through movement. In warehouses, for example, drones could locate inventory and lead forklift operators to the correct spot – perhaps by bouncing up and down to indicate a found item. The drone could then maneuver people clear of a reversing forklift to avoid accidents. Or, in a nursing home, for example, drones could unobtrusively make night rounds, alerting staff to problems, such as a distressed resident or a gas leak. In agricultural or orchard fields, drones could survey crop conditions and direct operators or field workers to potential problems.

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