Nicholas Rehm Is An Aerospace Engineer Who Created a “Brain” for Drones To Fly Autonomously


We live in a world heavily dependent on technology. For the most part, we take for granted how smoothly devices make our everyday lives run. It is the perseverance of countless engineers that makes it possible for us to rely on computers, phones, smart devices, and so much more. Nicholas Rehm is an aerospace engineer who is constantly looking at ways to enhance the technology that supports drones. Every little tweak on a drone he makes leads the industry closer to reaching its fullest potential. When drones reach this potential, they could become as common as other devices we use each day.

Nicholas is currently an Associate Professional Staff I at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in La Plata, Maryland. As explained on APL’s website, “We solve complex research, engineering, and analytical problems that present critical challenges to our nation. APL—the nation’s largest university affiliated research center—provides U.S. government agencies with deep expertise in specialized fields to support national priorities and technology development programs.” Drone applications are one of the many areas of focus that are critical to government based research and development. And for Nicholas, it seems that discovering novel ways to develop and use drones is like second nature.

During his spare time, Nicholas posts videos sharing his concepts on YouTube. In his most recent video, Nicholas addresses a growing concern for the progression of drone technology. The FAA requires drones to be flown within visual line of sight of an operator. This way, if the drone were to encounter an obstacle, the pilot can fly the drone around said obstacle. But in many situations, drone makers and users are looking for ways to safely fly drones BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight), or in GPS denied areas. If a drone can autonomously fly in such circumstances, it can be used to make deliveries in complex environments, operate in remote regions, or even work indoors or underground.

But as Nicholas explains, drones are quite dumb, on their own that is. They need the input of a human operator or a system that can mimic the “brain” and “eyes” of a human to compute the world around them. Nicholas built a “brain” for a drone that coordinates with the drone’s camera, or “eyes”, to essentially perform as Google Maps would. The algorithm tells the drone to recognize waypoints and plan a flight path along these points. If the camera encounters an obstacle, it sends a signal to the brain to create a new waypoint, just like how Google Maps or Wayz can create new waypoints to accommodate traffic.

The algorithm Nicholas created is purely for educational purposes and is not related to what he does at John Hopkins. But that doesn’t mean that his systems won’t be applied to actionable drones sometime. Drone technology has come a long way in just a few short years. We are right on the cusp of realizing just how much drones can be used in everyday situations. Nicholas, as well as many bright engineers around the world, are pushing the boundaries of drone technology so that they can be can become as commonplace as any other smart devices we use daily. As Nicholas says in his YouTube bio, “My goal is to share what I learn along the way and make advanced concepts less scary.”


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