Rita and Virginia, the Skywriters

AR100b Rita and her twin Virginia are AirRobot AR100B aviation-grade quadcopters with tllt and zoom cameras.  They are named after Dr. Rita Virginia Rodriguez at the National Science Foundation who has been a huge advocate for safety, security, and rescue robots. They were used at the 2014 SR-530 Oso Mudslide response to allow geologists and hydrologists to assess the eminent risk of loss of life to responders from further slides and flooding through funding from the Field Innovation Team and the National Science Foundation (IIS-1445936). She covered 30-40 acres from an altitude of 140ft in 48 minutes and produced 3D reconstructions in 3 hours; this would normally take 2-4 days with a manned helicopter.

Rita and Virginia live in the sky like large hummingbirds.  They prefer to be between 20 feet to 200 feet from the ground to get the best views of what is going on.  It is very difficult for civil engineers to assess damage above 3 stories with binoculars because they angles are poor. But by looking through these beautiful yellow hummingbirds, structural specialists can see damage from any angle and make quick decisions as to whether it is safe for responders to go into a building without spending hours shoring it up. Hazardous materials specialists use these to check out chemical train derailments as well.

Rita and Virginia are most often used in first person view mode, where responders can see through her eyes and direct the robot in real time over the internet through a sketch and touch interface called Skywriter. Skywriter was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation (IIS-1143713). They can also be programmed to collect images autonomously.


While Rita or Virginia or other UAS can provide immediate data to responders by the Operator Control Station, other responders could benefit from the data as well. Imagine that a responder with an urban search and rescue team could use Rita or Virginia to check out whether someone is trapped on a roof while at the same time a hydrologist (flooding engineer) could be looking over the internet for signs about flooding while an insurance agency could be determining the damage.

Having multiple people use the data, and try to direct where it is looking, is a big challenge. You don’t want 3 or 4 people trying to grab the steering wheel of a car! Even more so if they aren’t in the car or don’t know how to drive! And people say things like “over there” which the operator or robot can’t understand.  We created Skywriter to allow decision makers to sketch or highlight what they want. It is being licensed by various companies.

Assistant Zookeepers will:

  • Use skywriter to tell Rita or Virgina what they want to see in Tinytown.