Taking flight, then taking it apart

The Oktokopter — a remote-controlled, eight-bladed helicopter that can hover in one place or travel great distances — can be used for a range of tasks, from taking photos to performing military surveillance. But there’s a problem with this commercially available, assembly-required small copter: It’s difficult to transport.

So a team of Northeastern electrical and computer engineering student-researchers fixed it for a senior capstone project, which placed third in this year’s ECE Capstone Design Competition.

After a year of work, the students presented a proof-of-concept for an easy-to-transport Oktokopter that includes arms that quickly snap in and out of place and that can be stored in a durable case. The project was called RAMROD, short for Ruggedized Autonomous Modular Reconnaissance Oktokopter Design.

The students — Lauren Clausen, Daniel Dumanis, Tyler Fenton, James Hardy and Stephen Schmitt — also developed new software than can run on an Android phone, making it even easier to control the high-tech copter. Electrical and computer engineering professor Bahram Shafai served as the team’s faculty adviser.

“We made the device modular so that it could pack up into a box and could move around easily,” Hardy said. “When you’re in the field, you can have this put together in five minutes.”

Electronic components connected by a USB plug enable the arms to simply snap into place — no welding or soldering is required — and the device’s new software integrates GPS technology, making it easy to dispatch an Oktokopter to a particular location. The device can detect and avoid obstacles such as walls or buildings, though further development is required before the device is fully autonomous.

“In a military setting, we would want this to have full automation, where a soldier would simply have to plot a push-pin on a map and push the start button,” Dumanis said. “The Okto would ideally have the ability to take off, image the area of interest, fly back and land safely — all while avoiding obstacles such as walls and trees.”