Journal article

Flying over the Reality Gap: From Simulated to Real Indoor Airships

Because of their ability to naturally float in the air, indoor airships (often called blimps) constitute an appealing platform for research in aerial robotics. However, when confronted to long lasting experiments such as those involving learning or evolutionary techniques, blimps present the disadvantage that they cannot be linked to external power sources and tend to have little mechanical resistance due to their low weight budget. One solution to this problem is to use a realistic flight simulator, which can also significantly reduce experimental duration by running faster than real time. This requires an efficient physical dynamic modelling and parameter identification procedure, which are complicated to develop and usually rely on costly facilities such as wind tunnels. In this paper, we present a simple and efficient physics-based dynamic modelling of indoor airships including a pragmatic methodology for parameter identification without the need for complex or costly test facilities. Our approach is tested with an existing blimp in a vision-based navigation task. Neuronal controllers are evolved in simulation to map visual input into motor commands in order to steer the flying robot forward as fast as possible while avoiding collisions. After evolution, the best individuals are successfully transferred to the physical blimp, which experimentally demonstrates the efficiency of the proposed approach.

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