April Blaylock, Robotics Engineer
Robotics Developer, Aeryon Labs
April programs aerial robots that fly into dangerous locations.
April is a rock star robotics engineer at Aeryon Labs, a small Waterloo-based company that designs aerial vehicles for police, military and civilian applications. She programs robots with sci-fi capabilities, notably the ability to fly unmanned. Her proudest accomplishment has been to give the vehicle an ability to perceive its environment, make decisions and take action – like dealing with flying under tree cover, landing on its own and tracking targets in the video.
“We humans use our eyes so that when we’re moving left, we see we’re moving left. Using the onboard camera, I’ve given that ability to the vehicle. When it looks down at the ground and sees the grass moving one way, it must be moving the other way. We turn that into mathematical functions that represent location,” April says.
Aeryon Scouts, as they’re called, can scout out a scene’s danger zones. The Aeryon Scout helped take down drug lords in Central America. The Scout was able to go in, survey the scene, and help the military determine the safest route for a successful arrest. Rebel forces in Libya also used it to scout ahead before moving forward.
April studied mechatronics in university, a mashup of computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering. Her job involves engineering and programming software – from the flight recorder to the control system to the robot’s vision and how it reacts to its environment.
A touchscreen tablet operates the Aeryon Scout and its flight path is controlled by GPS technology on top of Google maps. The user programs the flight path and the Scout takes care of the rest. “GPS consists of 24 satellites that are orbiting the earth and they provide telemetry (information and measurements) to anybody holding a GPS unit of any kind. A chip in our Aeryon Scout listens to the satellites and receives telemetry. We get accuracy under three meters anywhere in the world,” April says.
The Scout technology is super easy to use (April recently taught it to her own mother!). Its small size means anyone can carry it, even on foot in a backpack. And it’s nearly undetectable. On a radar system, the 1.3 kg robot resembles a goose. “Foot soldiers have never had an overhead view before, they’ve always seen the combat field from where they were standing, so this gives them an edge,” April says.
The futuristic technology has also captured the attention of the film and television industry. Since its television debut on Flashpoint it has been used to capture seamless panoramic shots.
A day in the life
April is constantly giving the Scout new capabilities. Various cameras provide different visions, such as daylight, night vision (FLIR - infrared heat sensors) and optical zoom. The cameras record live video and stream it back to a live feed. They also can take still photos. The current robot camera has a 5 megapixel photo sensor, but April and her team are developing new camera with more resolution – providing better quality and detail.
Aeryon Labs is often invited to participate in various military exercises such as the Spartan Bear in Canada[http://www.aeryon.com/news/pressreleases/260-spartanbear.html], the URBEX Challenge in the UK and the Empire Challenge in the United States. April has participated in several of these exercises. She also traveled to Central America to demonstrate the Scout to the military.
April is passionate about getting more women involved in tech. She frequently volunteers at the University of Waterloo to share her experiences with high school girls.
Why this job rocks
“One of my favourite Albert Einstein quotes is, ‘Scientists investigate that which already is. Engineers create that which has never been.’ Every day I come to work and I have a challenge, I have a problem to solve and I love that.”
- April studied mechanical engineering with a mechatronics co-op at the University of Waterloo. By chance she took a course called autonomous mobile robotics and she came out changed. “I loved that course so much that I returned to it as a teaching assistant,” she said.
- She realized she wanted to work in autonomous mobile robotics and, more specifically, unmanned aerial vehicles. She went back to Waterloo and got a Masters in mechanical and mechatronic engineering.
- There she met Aeryon Labs co-founder Dave Kroetsch, who was pursuing his masters as well. Dave had previously founded the university club called WARG (Waterloo Aerial Robotics Group). They were building small gas-powered helicopters that flew by themselves using GPS, something no one at the university had done before.
- April started at Aeryon Labs where she says she, “applied all the skills in mechanical, electrical engineering and computer science to my job.”
When April writes computer code she must factor in worst-case scenarios. What happens to the robot if it loses power or goes down?
“It needs a flight information recording so if it goes down we can find out what happened, why it went down, and retrieve that information. Just like on an airplane there’s a black box recording all the flight telemetry. I played a role in making the flight telemetry system for the aerial vehicle,” April says.
Programming cannot change the shape, size or sound of the vehicle, but it can give it certain flight path characteristics. “If we were to approach a target and had to go over a tree line, for example, we design software so that if we lost communication with a vehicle, it would climb to the highest elevation, avoid the trees, and return home without needing input from the pilot.”
Tips for success
- Join your local robotics or computer sciences club – If your school doesn’t have a robotics club, consider starting one. Take part in competitions!
- Be curious – take stuff apart. Learn first hand how things work.
- Don’t be afraid to learn – This especially applies to girls. Robotics can seem like an intimidating field, but studying it in university will teach what you need to know. “Ask questions and get involved. It’s ok to make mistakes – it’s not that tough.”
- Learn what you’re good at – “I’ve learned what I like to do and that I can be really good at programming. I’ve also learned I can be good at giving demonstrations to people and feel confident about it.”
Find out more about Aeryon Labs in the CareerMash blog: Waterloo robot drone helps Libyan rebels.