Flying Arena Lab Manual

Introduction to Center for Autonomy

The University of Illinois Center for Autonomy is an initiative of the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL), stemming from the establishment of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory (IRL) 2015. CfA maintains shared research facilities which bring together faculty and students to solve ambitious and challenging problems in robotics. We are pleased to recognize the many units of campus that embrace the notion of a shared facility designed to provide greater capabilities at lower costs for all interested faculty and who are helping fund its operations. These include:

  • College of Engineering
  • Coordinated Science Laboratory
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Mechanical Science and Engineering

The faculty associated with CfA span an even greater set of units reflecting the breadth and depth of expertise that can be drawn from by partnering with CfA. These include:

  • College of Engineering
  • College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
  • Coordinated Science Laboratory
  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Civil and Environmental Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering
  • Mechanical Science and Engineering
  • Physics

The CfA Robotics Labs currently host an indoor aerial robot arena, a 33x30x13 ft3 (10x9x4 m3) motion-capture volume with safety netting and a cushioned floor. The space can easily be reconfigured to provide for cooperating aerial and ground vehicle research. The motion capture volume is covered by 8 Vicon T40 motion capture cameras capable of running at 370 frame per second with full frame resolution. Real-time positioning data, from object markers captured by the system, can provide millimeter accuracy and be streamed via Wi-Fi or local internet connections to devices interfaced with the Vicon DataStream SDK. Currently the SDK supports C++ and Matlab programming using vrpn_client_ros (updated from vicon_bridge).

Flying Arena

CfA is pleased to welcome any research group that are interested in using or contributing to this facility to join the lab.


Acknowledgement for Papers Involving Experimentation in the CfA Laboratories

The following acknowledgement shall be included in all publications that incorporate any results obtained through the use of the CfA facilities:

“… was carried out in part in the Center for Autonomy Robotics Laboratories at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.”

Please also send the publication information (citation, DOI, or conference name and paper/poster title) to the lab manager.

The CfA research staff may make contributions to the research carried out by our users. They can have an important scientific role through the planning and realization of experiments, through the analysis and interpretation of data, or through significant collaboration to the research. When these occur, the staff person should be included as a co-author on papers.

Key Parts of Manual
Use of the Lab
Lab Rules
Safety Training

Use of the Lab

Prospective users should follow the application instructions here to become a formal user and get i-card access to the lab. Every effort will be made to ensure decisions about the application will be sent back to the applicant and the applicant’s supervisor within 2 business days. Please contact the Center for Autonomy Associate Director for Robotics if these service goals are not met. Lab users can make lab reservations online.

Completing Lab Training

The lab staff provides office hours to introduce new users to IRL, covering the following topics:

  • Discuss/plan research work
  • Test mobile robots in the arena
  • Help using lab soldering and test equipment
  • Assist in robot assembly and repair
  • Introduce to the Vicon motion capture system
  • Compliance with CfA rules and safety measures

To comply with our safety rules and insurance requirements, we recommend that no user use the lab alone.  Before a user has completed lab training, such users can use the facility only accompanied by CfA staff and with advance notice to the CfA staff. Failure to follow these rules and other rules related to CfA lab use could result in suspension of user privileges.  Please take note that safety violations and investigations of incidents could result in closure of the facility for your group and possibly all users.

Making reservations to use the lab

After completing the lab training, users can schedule time and self-use the facility as long as all lab rules are followed. Please use the web-based reservation form. Please also include set-up time and reconfiguration time if you need to reconfigure the laboratory in a configuration that differs from standard. The standard set-up is for UAS flights with foam dispersed evenly across the floor and netting fully deployed. You will be expected to remove such foam when you require it and replace it at the end of your measurements. Addition of large fans for gust simulation are another example of deviations from the standard configuration.

Currently, a lab schedule is maintained on the Illinois Robotics Group’s website. Please find an open time slot and submit the reservation request form online. After the appointment is approved, the requested time will appear on the lab schedule.

Lab Rules

  • Items labeled as “Staff Only” must be handled by CfA staff; general users should not touch them.
  • Ask the lab manager before handling any items that you are not sure if you may handle it.
  • Ask the lab manager for permission before you need to move things in/out of the lab.

Using Flying Arena Facilities

Builders Lab

The Builders Lab is used a staging area for flight tests in the Flying Arena and as an innovation center to build robotic platforms. It provides common tools for building and maintaining robots, as shown in the picture below. Users may recommend new tools for CfA to purchase. Please send your wish list to the CfA lab manager and include a brief explanation why should have the tools you are recommending and how such tools might benefit other user, if applicable. The CfA staff will work their best to serve your research needs although budgetary considerations may limit CfA’s ability to acquire such tools promptly.

Specialized tools of use to a particular experiment or use can be brought by the user to CfA. The user should notify the Lab Coordinator/Manager and if reasonable, the lab manager will provide storage space for such equipment while the related project is completed.

All eleven benches are labeled from B1 to B11. B3 and B5 are CfA’s dedicated working bench area and are reserved for CfA daily users who have appointments on the online schedule. Users may apply to use other working benches for a long term following rules:

  • The user must have an active project at CfA approved by the staff.
  • Any project material/equipment brought in and out of CfA must be reported on the log book at the entrance of room 1257.
  • Hazardous material should not be stored in the Bench room.
  • No more than two benches can be used by a single group if no more benches are available and there are demands from other groups.
  • The longest time span that can be reserved at one time is one month.
  • Renewal is possible and must be approved by the CfA staff.
    • CfA staff may turn down the renewal for reasons including but not limited to the following: the bench is not used more than 50% of the requested time, project priority, high demand of the Bench room from other users currently in the waiting list.
  • All lab rules are followed by the user.

Other rules in the Bench room:

  • Material/equipment brought in and out of rooms 1207 and 1208 must be reported to the lab manager and logged into a the log book at the entrance of room 1257. Materials/equipment belonging to CfA must not be removed from 1207 and 1208 unless written permission has been obtained from the Lab Manager.
  • Do not arm the motors of your multirotors if you have propellers on. i.e. disable the motor if you have propellers on the vehicle.
  • Do not drill or cut carbon-fiber material indoors: carbon-fiber power is toxic, you must talk to the lab coordinator/manager if your project requires modifying carbon-fiber material.
  • At the end of your experiment day, make sure to:
    • Clean and tidy your bench.
    • Restore the tool bench to its original configuration.
    • Unplug all power plugs.
    • Store your batteries according to the lab safety rules (See below).
    • Store any bulky equipment in the storage room 1256. TODO: CHANGE THIS
    • Shutdown your computers and close the door at 1257.
  • All lab rules are followed by the user. Failure to follow lab rules may result in consequences up to and including immediate termination of rights to use desk space.


Room 1258 hosts the flying arena and Vicon motion capture cameras.  The CfA working bench B3 and B5 will be automatically reserved with your reservation of room 1258. Please reserve your time online for the upcoming week on or before the Thursday of the previous week.  This will enable enough time for conflictions in requests and to get your iCard access approved for those times.  Please cancel any reserved time as soon as possible and at least 48 hours in advance when possible.  A reoccurring schedule is possible, please follow the format of the online reservation form and indicate your reoccurring experiment times.  The maximum time-span the user can reserve  is 5 hours per day.  Special requests, such as a daily repeating reservation of 5 hours, may need to be negotiated with CfA staff during high usage times.

A confirmation about your schedule will be sent back to you via email. You must be on the calendar in order to use the lab.  Note that users who consistently reserve and cancel time in the facility may find their access limited at the discretion of the lab manager.

Flying Arena and Bench Room Rules

  • Flight tests can be performed in the flying arena only.  Hardware building and maintenance should be carried out in the Bench room 1257.
  • You may keep your experiment setup on your working bench overnight provided you disconnect all power cords and properly organized the space such that it is clean and tidy.
  • Any vehicles must be approved by the Lab manager before they can be operated at IRL.
  • Pilots can fly their drones only after passing the flight test of the lab training session.
  • Aerial robots that weigh more than 250g cannot carry propellers with main battery plugged outside of the flying arena room 1258.
  • Vicon camera calibration will be checked weekly at 10:00am. If the calibration wand measurement is off by more than 1%, a new camera calibration will be performed at once. Monthly camera calibration will be performed at 10:00am the first Monday in the month.
  • The Vicon computer must be used for motion-capture related tasks.
  • Maximum timespan the user can reserve the lab is 5 hours; Special requests, such as a repeating reservation of more than 5 hours, may need to be negotiated with IRL staff during time of high usage.
  • The LED strobe lights on Vicon cameras have a certain lifttime. To prolong the service of Vicon instruments, if the Vicon cameras are not being used for data aquisition for longer than 45 min, the cameras should be turned off; the computer which controls the Vicon cameras can be left on to maintain your work state.
  • Please make sure all doors are closed and locked whenever leaving the lab.

Users must also obey the flying robot safety rules for safety before, during, and after operating their drone.

Battery / Fuel Safety Rules

Handling LiPo batteries:

  • Fully charged LiPo batteries must be stored in fire-resistant sacks.
  • Always use “1C” to charge your LiPo battery, namely the maximum charging rate you can use is 1 times the battery capacity rating, with the units changed to amps, e.g. if your battery has a capacity rating of 2200mah, you should charge your battery at 2.2 amp.
  • Always charge batteries inside the provided fire-resistant container, shown in the picture below:

  • To dispose old LiPo batteries, properly discharge the battery using the discharge function of the charger, submerge them in salt water for at least a week then you can safely throw them into trash; LiPo batteries are environmentally safe. If you want to dispose a LiPo battery at IRL, talk to the lab manager who will handle the disposal for you.
  • Never use a punctured LiPo battery; if your LiPo battery gets a puncture in a crash for example, go find the lab manager immediately. Never try to charge or discharge a punctured LiPo battery; fire or explosion could occur. The lab manager is the only authorized person to handle a punctured LiPo battery at IRL.
  • When not using the LiPo battery for more than 10 days, please use the storage function of the charger to properly maintain the LiPo battery per-cell voltage at the storage value (~3.8 V).
  • Batteries not in use must be stored in fire-resistant LiPo sacks. If the batteries won’t be used in more than 10 days, please use the storage function of the charger to properly maintain the LiPo battery per-cell voltage at the storage value (~3.8 V).
  • Fire extinguishers are located at the entrance of room 1257 in case of fire, always notify the Lab manager or other Senior CSL staff and contact fire department by calling 911.

Handling Nitro fuel:

  • Nitro-powered engines should be operated outdoors only.

Violations to safety rules: any user who violates IRL’s safety rules will be subject to consequences up to and including the suspension of user privileges; such users will also be required to go through IRL lab training again. Before repeating the lab training, users will not be able to use facilities at IRL. Violations of safety will be reported to the users professor, the CSL facilities manager and be recorded in the Lab Manager’s logbook. Damages resulting from violations may be billed and expected to be paid for by the user and/or the user’s professor.

Lab Manager Office Hours

The CfA Manager and Lab Coordinator can be contacted via email and meetings scheduled via Zoom for assistance.

You can also request a time for your Safety Training or Flight Test by mail as well.

Usage Rates

Open to All University Users at This Time

The following are future guidelines are currently under consideration:

CfA is a shared facility that must cover costs and be able to invest in regular upgrades in order to continue to operate and maintain its ability to permit its users to undertake cutting edge research. As such, the following guidelines have been developed for different types of users.

  • For University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign users
    • Those whose primary appointment is in departments supporting CfA operations
      • Access is open and at no cost
    • Those whose primary appointment is in departments not supporting CfA operations
      • Please consult the lab manager for no cost access
    • Those providing equipment of benefit to CfA and its user community
      • Special arrangements will be considered
  • For industry users
    • These will require the completion and approval of a facilities use agreement
  • We anticipate usage policies and fees to be reviewed on an annual basis to reflect changes in support and costing

Safety Training

Safety Training will include the following:

  • Introduction to general lab rules
  • Lab safety procedures
  • Usage of available equipment
  • Safe operation inside the flying arena

Flight Tests and Practice Flying Multicopters

  • For student that have not flown a UAV, we have the following available for reservation:
    • Multiple hours of practice flight time with our multicopter flight simulator in the IRL Builders Room (1257)
    • Use our student practice quadrotor for practicing flying in the IRL Flying Arena (Rm 1258)
  • Flight Tests for pilots include being able to perform the following maneuvers with the IRL training quadcopter:
    • Hovering at 4 orientations
    • Bank-turn circling
    • Figure-8 circling (may be done in simulator)
  • In addition, pilots must have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the quadrotors (describing the equipment, operation and the info below) and demonstrate a flight with their own aerial robotic platform and equipment to be used for their research experimentation:
    • Perform the pre-flight check using their own pre-flight checklist.
    • Perform a typical flight in the actual experiment
    • Demonstrate the fail-safe and kill switch settings

Video Tutorials (under development)

A number of general safety tutorials are available on-line. The following are required. Users should complete these and print certificate of completions for inclusion in their user qualification materials. These are:

  • LiPo battery safety
  • Radio fail safe settings
  • Fire extinguisher usage
  • Safe soldering

A number of additional safety or equipment use videos are recommended for viewing if they are applicable to the experiments users are expecting to undertake. Examples include:

Until IRL specialized video tutorials are completed, users should go to training session with the Lab Manager to complete training requirements.

Pilot training for fixed-wings (TBD)

This will be a collaboration with Champaign County R/C Club. Student pilots will be introduced to the CCRCC flight school. The training is free-of-charge.


CfA staff welcome suggestions for improvement of operations and facilitation of usage to the extent possible. Please provide suggestions in person during office hours or email suggestions to the Lab Manager/Coordinator. If you feel that your comments and suggestions are not being addressed in a reasonable time frame, feel free to contact the CfA Lab Director.