The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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ECE Students Build Camera-packing Drone to Videotape Extreme Sports


A team of four seniors from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department has conceived, designed, and is currently building a camera-toting drone aircraft that can hover above a mountain biker, surfer, climber, or any of the country’s 4.88-million action athletes and videotape the performance. Named “Otto: the Personal Cameraman,” the device will be mounted on a scale-model “quadcopter” and is the brainchild and senior design project of Andrew Sousa, Seth Kielbasa, Albion Lici, and Noah Portnoy, who also receive plenty of helpful input from faculty advisor Christopher Hollot. Go to project website:

As the team’s project abstract explains, “Otto is the personal cameraman that introduces a new way to capture your life's most exciting moments. The system is an autonomous quadcopter that is designed to follow and record a user performing an individual action sport. By maintaining a visual lock on the user during his or her performance, Otto is able to capture the entire experience through an onboard high-resolution video camera. Once finished, the user can gather video recordings from the drone and share them with loved ones.”

Otto introduces a new way for extreme sports performers to videotape themselves. In describing the basic need for Otto, the team notes that individual action sports, such as skiing, wakeboarding, mountain biking, and skateboarding, are activities that people truly enjoy capturing and sharing. Filming these moments is extremely hard since the sports are done at high velocities or in relatively dangerous environments, such as on mountains or in high surf.

“We have set out to eliminate this challenge from the lives of amateur extreme sports performers,” as Otto’s inventors say.

Until now, the four seniors explain, the challenge of recording adventure sports has been attempted through various inadequate solutions. For example, some performers try to wield cameras themselves, a trick that often puts them in harm’s way. Imagine attempting an ongoing video “selfie” on a surfboard, mountain bike, or a cliff you’re trying to scale. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Another option for recording adventurous athletes is to recruit friends who are willing to ride, climb, surf, or ski alongside and videotape the action, effectively putting both the performers and camera people on potential collision courses.

“Thus, action sports performers have not yet found the appropriate solution for capturing all of the amazing things they do,” as the Otto team concludes.

Enter Otto, stage left! Otto is the personal cameraman for capturing and recording amazing third-person aerial images. As Otto’s creators observe, “This product will make the recording process safer for action sports performers and enable them to capture a unique, aerial view of their performances. Additionally, it will deliver functionality that has never (other than until very recently) been feasible for everyday consumers.”

They add that their technology could have applications in many other fields, including medicine, the military, and home security.

In order to deliver their ambitious prototype, the ECE team has developed a set of technical requirements and constraints to keep Otto users in focus, on target, and in proper scope. Most importantly, the hovering camera system must initiate and maintain a visual lock on each user throughout the entire performance. The team also included built-in safety features to minimize the possibility of injury to the user when operating Otto.

For example, since the user operates the drone by employing a special app for smartphones, the system includes a safety lock on both the smartphone application and the quadcopter itself to prevent undesired liftoff of the vehicle.

Here’s how Otto works. Employing his or her smartphone, a user can open Otto’s app, specify a drone-user separation distance, turn Otto on, start the video recording, and press the takeoff button. Then the drone will lift off and rise to the specified drone-user separation distance. At the same time, the so-called FollowMe feature starts up in the drone, enabling it to track and follow the athlete through a visual lock on his or her uniquely colored jersey, created for this purpose.

The FollowMe feature works by leveraging two major technologies: GPS and image processing. The first component of FollowMe is GPS tracking, based on the GPS coordinates of the user relative to those of the drone. The second component is camera tracking, which is able to find the user in the frame because he or she is wearing the specially colored jersey.

Finally, the drone has a high-resolution GoPro Hero video camera onboard featuring an internal battery as an independent power source as well as its own data storage. The GoPro camera will be used to capture a high-resolution video recording of the user.

Each person on the team has very specific duties. Electrical engineering major Sousa is the team manager, hardware engineer, and is in charge of the tracking software. The other three team members are all computer systems engineering majors, with Kielbasa in charge of flight control software, Lici the GPS tracking software, and Portnoy the camera tracking software. (January 2015)