Simulating a drone flight over Titan @ NASA Space Apps Challenge
In October 2019, I decided to join the NASA Space Apps competition together with some friends: Matías and Candelaria. We only had 24 hours to pick one of the challenges, find the best solution to it, and give our pitch to the judges.
This consisted in creating an app to pilot an unmanned aerial system (UAS), such as a NASA space drone, utilizing the 6-axis gyro sensor within a smartphone or tablet. None of us had a technical background in science or space-related things. This made us decide to approach this challenge in a different way than what it was supposed to. Instead of creating a real app, we had our main focus in designing a user interface that would meet its users' needs. We strongly believe that empathizing with them is key to build a good product.
We only had one day to do it, so we decided to split it in three: learn and research, design the interface, and prepare our pitch. We spent almost half of our day on research papers by NASA and learning about different planets, drones, atmospheres, and what potential hazards might occur to them. We also had the help of César Bertucci, a scientist who worked on NASA's Cassini–Huygens space-research mission. He told us about the similarities of exoplanet Titan with Earth and how it would be a good place to fly a drone.
Thankfully, by the end of the day, we found this extremely useful research already made by NASA on UAS pilots and their experiences. Based on this study, we defined a persona who had specific characteristics and needed special on-screen information, such as showing the time to the next waypoint, a geospatial and stream view, weather, temperature, and wind data, among others.
But... there was an unexpected problem!
Piloting drones for off-world planetary exploration such as Titan or even the Moon will always have delayed communications, so using an app to pilot a drone in real-time would not be possible. Also, the research paper on drone pilots was made on pilots who were flying on Earth. It is not the same to fly a drone on Earth than flying on the Moon or on a different planet.
It was Sunday morning. We only had three hours to finish our designs, slides, and pitch. Among the judges, there were people from CONICET (Argentina's National Scientific and Technical Research Council) and the U.S. Embassy. Not gonna lie — we were a bit nervous.
So... this is our final solution. There would be delayed communications, so the app would let pilots simulate the desired route of the drone by using the touch screen + gyroscope of a tablet. Also, every potential hazard that might happen should be planned ahead of time so when its sensors detect any of these, the drone would automatically land and wait for new instructions.
After the simulation, the pilot would be able to watch a live stream (in our case, with the 80-minute delay on Titan) of the path with both cameras: geospatial or stream view. This app also has most of the visual aids that our persona required and the user-friendly interface would give the pilot a better experience while flying.
I really enjoyed working on this challenge, which helped develop my existing skills while also learning a lot of new things. I'd love to thank Matías and Candelaria for their great work, as well as César for his mentorship and the great support that we received from Space Apps's team. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the finals but it was a great experience working together as a team.
Wanna check out the full project? Visit the official Space Apps website.