Virtual Test Environments for UAVs

For experiments with unmanned aerial vehicles, researchers use simulated geographies that avoid the risks of real-world flight tests.
Simulation of a flight test
This simulation of the area surrounding Joint Base Cape Cod was created to flight test a UAV’s operation and navigation in that location without the UAV’s actually flying in that airspace.

Government and industry see various potential uses for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). They might be agile partners for search-and-rescue missions in congested urban settings, camera-bearers imaging difficult or hazardous terrain, or cost-effective deliverers of goods. Lincoln Laboratory is at the forefront of UAV R&D, but the recent restrictions on flying UAVs has limited our ability to conduct full-scale flight tests. So we have created a way to test UAV systems without actually flying them in a real-world demonstration. We use virtual environments to mimic the locales in which the UAVs might navigate. By flying a UAV in a safe location, say the Laboratory’s indoor Autonomous Systems Development Facility, but providing the aircraft with a representation of a real environment, we can test if our control, navigational, collision avoidance, or any other algorithms are successfully directing a UAV’s mission. Using simulated sensor data, UAVs can be virtually tested in settings that are either too expensive or too dangerous to use for real-world field tests — for example, a partially demolished building in a search-and-rescue scenario. These virtual environments provide not only a low-cost, low-risk test environment but also offer a practical way to pretrain UAVs to perform tasks.