5 minute readFrench hobbyist augments UAV reality

There’s no telling what hobbies can turn into, for obsessed-enough people. Apple’s Steve Jobs often refers to some of his company’s lower key projects as hobbies, which seem to be part technology-demonstrators, part proofs-of-concept and all meant to answer a what-would-happen-if technological inquiry, with the idea that if you build it, maybe they will come.
Augmented reality, now available on many smartphones, is a way of instantly contextualizing visual inputs, with sound or graphics. The idea being, holding up your cellphone camera up against a building, storefront or maybe even person and getting more information thrown up for it, listed on the internet.

Fabien Blanc-Paques in his lab.

Imagine the potential for military applications of something like this. And then put it on a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). This is what a French hobbyist has done, enabling the augmentation of the live video feed from a UAV with realtime onboard data like position, altitude, navigation data, battery-usage and voltage, current temperature etc. “At the moment, it is only a hobby-based project, but commercial or military applications are possible,” says Fabien Blanc-Paques of his R1OSD device (the R1 stems from his son’s name, Erwan, and OSD stands for On Screen Display).

The R1OSD-fitted UAV ground station, with a sun-readable LCD touchscreen and a control/data RF link, which has a maximum range of 10 kilometers.

The data is gathered from onboard sensors ‘like GPS, accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, pitot tubes, processed and digitally inserted into a live video feed, then downlinked to the UAV operator or pilot’. “All the data processing and sensor fusion can provide realtime and enhanced information, like direction from a specific waypoint, direction and distance to next waypoint, warnings like critical altitude, speed etc,” he says.

A view of the flight from the display at the ground station.

And how does he know it works? “I have tested this system on a UAV, which I designed myself, and on some R/C (Radio Controlled) planes converted to UAVs,” says the resident of the ‘French Silicon Valley’ in Grenoble (‘lots of electronics / IT companies here, and the area is specialized in nanotechnologies’), who’s worked on this project in his free time, on his own, for the past year. It started out as a fun project without any commercial intent.
And now? “I got requests from the Bonneville Racers people who need realtime data about speed, temperatures etc over a live video feed.”

Fabien holds up the navigation board and a UAV.

But he sees lots of applications for his project, considering how, increasingly, UAVs are being seen as a low-cost, low-risk solution in many areas. Right now Fabien’s working on taking the R1OSD to the next level. “I am working on a new HD version of R1OSD, that will integrate graphical virtual data over real data, fusing data from onboard sensors and also external sources. For example, if a fire brigade sends the UAV over a building under fire, the operator will be able to see the people that are trapped on the roofs thanks to thermal imaging, but he will also see where the gas valves are located as virtual data over a real video feed.”
“Onboard sensors do measurement and provide realtime information about gases or toxic areas and external data can be gathered from geospatial databases that provide 3D models of the building on fire, with details like emergency exit, gas valves, etc. Then all this data is processed and superimposed over the realtime video stream from the onboard camera, providing a clear and concise view with enhanced data to the operator. This system helps in decision-making in an emergency environment,” says Fabien.
That means, not only will the operator get the data from the onboard sensors right on his live video feed screen, but also data gathered from the internet. “This could also be very useful for defense,” says Fabien. One can see why. “Soldiers on the ground automatically send their GPS position to the UAV. The UAV then processes and integrates all this data over the camera data and then sends a bird’s-eye view of the operations that will be able to exactly see where the soldiers are.”
He’s aware that this technology could be subject to misuse. “With the new version, a sensitive part could be the geospatial data that is stored or transmitted to the system, as this data could leak information like spatial coordinates of goods, peoples, infrastructures, etc. The misuse of this technology could also present risks as the system features an autopilot and the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) could autonomously drop drugs over borders, weapons over prisons etc. And this UAS is very small with a two-meter wingspan, very quiet with very low-noise electric motors and very affordable too,” says Fabien, adding, “If mass produced, it would cost about a few hundred euros, most sensors included.”
Fabien studied at the Universite Joseph Fourier in Grenoble and the Universite de Lyon III, pursuing electronics and IT, and has a masters degree in Advanced Information Systems. He has worked for television and telecom companies in New Zealand and at a European research center in neutron science and technology. As he mentioned, this is a hobby for him. His day job is managing research and development for a company that makes RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) systems for retail shops. But he’s worked on components for UAS before, like ‘a complete sun-readable and all-weather ground station, digital diversity datalinks, UAV airframe’. He says he’s nearly completed a ‘full, home-made, cost-efficient UAV that could easily compete with industrial UAVs’.

So what do you think?