Southampton University Blimp Experiment: design and build of an autonomous blimp that can track a slowly moving target through an indoor environment
Group Members
Matthew Baker, Korinna Barnard, James Eastham, Ali Hajizadah, Keat Jane Tan, Byron Yew
Dr Ivo Peters, Dr Davide Lasagna
Airships have almost disappeared from use due to their high running costs but have many advantages for certain applications, including lower energy consumption. A blimp is a non-rigid airship that relies on lighter-than-air gas to generate lift. They are ideal for surveillance, recording events or interacting with humans because they are more stable and perceived as friendlier than the conventional multirotor and fixed-wing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The aim of this project is to design and build an autonomous blimp that can track a slowly moving target through an indoor environment. The blimp could be used to follow staff members during an open day or for outreach activities.

An object detection programme using real-time colour detection was developed that is capable of running at a high framerate while maintaining an accurate focus on the target. The location of the target is used by the control software to correct the position of the blimp and thrust vectoring is used for increased manoeuvrability with reduced power consumption. The blimp is designed to be lightweight for efficiency with a custom gondola to house the required hardware and an envelope inflated with non-flammable helium to generate lift.

The design process involved computational simulations to understand dynamic behaviours and assess feasibility of feedback controllers. An iterative approach was taken to design the gondola with the final design validated through Finite Element Analysis (FEA). Prototyping was vital to test new manufacturing techniques and design concepts. Once manufactured, the assembled gondola was used to validate the developed control software through ground testing.
Top view of gondola
Bottom view of gondola
Proposed system design