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Publication Title | Collision-Tolerant Resource-Constrained Blimp for Long-Term Autonomy in Subterranean Environments

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Duckiefloat: a Collision-Tolerant Resource-Constrained Blimp for Long-Term Autonomy in Subterranean Environments
Yi-Wei Huang∗, Chen-Lung Lu∗, Kuan-Lin Chen, Po-Sheng Ser, Jui-Te Huang, Yu-Chia Shen, Pin-Wei Chen, Po-Kai Chang, Sheng-Cheng Lee, Hsueh-Cheng Wang
Abstract— There are several challenges for search and rescue robots: mobility, perception, autonomy, and communication. Inspired by the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge, we propose an autonomous blimp robot, which has the advantages of low power consumption and collision-tolerance compared to other aerial vehicles like drones. This is important for search and rescue tasks that usually last for one or more hours. However, the underground constrained passages limit the size of blimp envelope and its payload, making the proposed system resource-constrained. Therefore, a careful design consideration is needed to build a blimp system with on-board artifact search and SLAM. In order to reach long-term operation, a failure-aware algorithm with minimal communication to human supervisor to have situational awareness and send control signals to the blimp when needed.
We carry out experiments in a controlled environment with the blimp’s pose tracked when performing trajectory following in remote control and autonomous scenarios. Artifact search and communication performances are evaluated in real environments. Finally, we show that the “situational awareness” human intervention under limited communication allows the blimp to escape from getting stuck (such as in a constrained passage) and prolong the search operation time. Lesson learnt is discussed for future develops of the proposed blimp in different subterranean environments.
I. INTRODUCTION
A. Motivation
Blimps are widely used in the 1900’s after its first invented. It was used both in civilian and military transportation needs. But after the appearance of airplanes, most of them are replaced by airplanes due to the safety of using hydrogen and the high cost of helium gas.
Recent success of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of quadcopter drones (referred to drones) has make them the most popular UAVs in recent years. It’s capable of maneuver- ing fast and precisely and can carry up to several kilograms in a comparably small body frame. However, the main drawback of drones is that they are power hungry. Drones have only limited flight time (16-40 minutes for a commercially available drone [1]), and are prone to collisions and will fail completely if one of the rotor blades are non-functional. Such constraints makes drones limited for search and rescue missions, which take a couple of hours or even days.
Blimps have some advantages over drones, and the main upper hand is that it has low-power consumption and is
*Y.-W. Huang and C.-L. Lu contributed equally to this work. All authors are with National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. Corresponding author email: hchengwang@g2.nctu.edu.tw
Fig. 1: We present an autonomous blimp Duckiefloat for the use of search and rescue (SAR) mission. Compared to quadcopter drone, our blimp is able to achieve longer flight time and is collision-tolerant. The proposed system enables on-board artifact search, visual odometry, and communications to base station for artifact report and situational awareness. Duckiefloat was used in the tunnel circuit of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge.
collision-tolerant. It is possible that blimps operate for days and even for weeks in a single charge due to its lighter than air (LAT) characteristics. They are also safe to navigate in unstructured environments. Some collisions aren’t a big deal due to its non-rigid body. This is important for SAR tasks because it needs to be robust and able to recover from any failure cases. Therefore it is well-suited for the search and rescue contexts, such as in the DARPA Subterranean (SubT) Challenge [2]. The main focus of SubT challenge is to encourage robotic research for autonomous systems in subterranean environments. Teams have to finish the task of searching and reporting locations of several types of artifacts including survivors and several items that commonly used by explorers.
Deploying the autonomous blimps as scouting vehicles is a good choice from the operating-time perspective as well as more collision-tolerant than drones in underground environments. Our main goal is to build an autonomous blimp that serves as a scouting robot in a multi-robot system for completing the tasks in the DARPA SubT Challenge, as shown in Fig. 1. Due to some constrained passages in subterranean environments, blimps have a size limit which is
arXiv:1910.14275v1 [cs.RO] 31 Oct 2019

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