By Linda Fresques
Undergrad works with autonomous helicopter
Kwame Porter-Robinson appreciates different perspectives. As an artist, he values the visual perspective. As an engineer, he values the mathematical perspective. And the two, he believes, complement each other.
Porter-Robinson is a senior in electrical engineering at New Mexico State University, with a minor in applied mathematics. The Washington, D.C., native has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and a minor in computer science from Boston University, where he graduated cum laude.
“Math offers a different way of looking at things and gives us a wider perspective. Math is important to understanding the world and its processes,” said Porter-Robinson, who expresses himself visually through pencil sketches.
His artistic training enhances his experience as an engineer, he said. “In art, you use visual imagery. In electrical engineering you can look at a diagram, for example, and be able to visualize different possibilities.”
Porter-Robinson is the leader of an eight-student senior capstone project involving an autonomous helicopter. The group is developing a control system to enable the helicopter to take off, hover at a specified height and land safely.
The prototype helicopter is about three feet long and one foot tall. Students have worked on the prototype for several years, enabling it to be commanded to take off, hover, go up and down, fly in circles, or follow a prescribed pattern of motion toward a destination and return.
The autonomous helicopter is being built in NMSU’s RioRoboLab, a NASAfunded laboratory that is working on a variety of projects that combine robotics and artificial intelligence systems. RioRobo- Lab is directed by Ram Prasad and provides a place for students to conduct cutting-edge research.
Porter-Robinson and his classmates are working to enable the helicopter to hover at a specified height by using visual sensors, rather than sonar controls. The helicopter can detect its height without the use of any external signaling. External signaling would be detectable – an important factor in battlefield situations.
The group is using bio-inspired, softcomputing technology, such as neural nets and fuzzy logic, to control the helicopter.
“Bio-inspired technology gives a machine the ability to do things that human beings can do. Instead of having options limited to true and false, this technology allows the machine to accept a wide range of logic and have more human-like behavior,” Porter-Robinson explained.
Porter-Robinson has been working on the helicopter since January 2007. He was lead programmer for the development and implementation of a see-and-avoid system that enables a platform to navigate from point to point while avoiding collision with other objects.
“RioRoboLab provides a great opportunity for students,” he said. “Part of the reason I’ve been so successful in school is because of RioRoboLab and the fact they let students work on cutting-edge research.”
Porter-Robinson also credits the New Mexico Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) with giving him valuable opportunities.
“It’s one thing to have a place to do research, but it’s another thing to have a place to present your work,” he said.
His other research projects include design and implementation of the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s nano-satellite first-generation command scheduler.