Nicholas Pilkington

Computers. @DroneDeploy. Fun

Read this first

Fat Albert

I was watching the Fleet Week display by the Blue Angels yesterday and we were talking about if you could determine where an aircraft was based on the sounds you were hearing from the engine.

Screenshot 2016-10-09 15.58.30.png

Say we have an aircraft at some unknown position flying at a constant linear velocity. If the engine is emitting sound at a constant frequency and as soon as we start hearing the engine we start recording the sound. Then given just that audio let’s try and determine how far away the aircraft is and how fast it’s traveling. Here’s a generated sample recording of a source starting 315.914 meters away and traveling at 214 meters per second in an unknown direction.

First let’s make a simplification. We can rotate our frame of reference such that the aircraft is traveling along the x-axis from some unknown starting point. If we look from above the situation looks like this.

Screenshot 2016-10-09 17.13.50.png

When working with...

Continue reading →

Minkowski Asteroids

We have two convex polygons P and Q each moving at constant velocities Vp and Vq. At some point in time they may pass through one another. We would like to find the point in time at which the area of their intersection is at a maximum. Here is a simple visualization, where the yellow area represents the intersection and the arrow heads represents the velocity of the polygons.


Let’s first look at the problem of testing whether two polygons intersect. The simplest way to do it is to check if any edges of one polygon intersect any edges of the other. For this we need a line segment intersection algorithm. We can check if two line segments A - B and C - D intersect if the signed area of the triangle A, B, C is different from the signed area of the triangle A, B, D and similarly for C, D, A and C, D, B. It’s simple and runs in O(N^2). Here’s the code:

import numpy as np

def area(A, B,

Continue reading →

Telephone Wiretapping

Imagine you are looking to intercept a communication that can happen between two people over a telephone network. Let’s say that the two people in question are part of a larger group, who all communicate with each other (sometimes via other people in the network if they don’t have their phone number). We can represent this as a graph where the vertices are people and edges connect two people if they have each other in their phone books.

Here’s a network with 6 people, some of whom don’t directly communicate with each other but can do so through others. Each person can reach all the others though, so the graph is connected.


Let’s also assume that this group of people communicate efficiently and use the smallest amount of calls possible and always distribute information to every person. If an unknown member of the network wants to communicate some nefarious plans to all the other...

Continue reading →

Geometric Cliques

If you have N points in the plane what is the largest subset of those points such that each point is within a distance of D of all the others. It seems pretty innocuous right? Turns out it’s a great big beautiful disaster.

Here’s a example of N = 10 points where the maximum subset are the points collected with dotted lines which are each within a distance D of each other. There is no bigger set.

Screenshot 2016-09-17 19.35.21.png

Trying to compute every subset of points and checking if they are all within D of each other will take exponential time O(2^N). So we need a better approach. Let’s try picking a point which will will assume to be part of this clique. Then all the candidate points that are not within D of that point won’t be in the clique. For example if we have three co-linear points spaced by D and select the middle one to build our clique then either the left points can be in the clique or the right one...

Continue reading →

Minimum Image Cover

Some applications of photogrammetry require us to collect a number of overlapping aerial images covering an area. The more overlap the better, as more overlap in pairs of images gives us a higher result in some applications. However in other applications we are actually looking for as few images as possible from the set that still cover the area of interest without any gaps.


Framed another way - given a collection of sets, what is the minimum number of those sets that need to be selected such that their union is the union of all of the sets. The sets in our case are defined by taking each location on the ground as a longitude,latitude pair and then finding the set of images that can see that location. We’ll talk about how to enumerate these locations on the ground later. This is called the set cover problem.

Screenshot 2016-07-25 11.53.04.png

 Camera Geometry

Before we start solving the problem lets generate a...

Continue reading →

Counting Money

This post is based on a question from the Challenge 24 competition in 2016 where we were given a photograph of each of the denominations of Hungarian currency, called Forints. In addition given a number of photos of piles of coins (some of them counterfeit) and we had to compute the total value of money automatically.


First let’s look at the template and see how we can easily extract the location of the clean coins. A flood fill can compute the connected components using a BFS which runs quickly enough and since the images is quite clear we can just iterate through each unvisited non-white pixel and for each start a new component and flood out to all connected pixels that aren’t white. Here’s the code:

import cv2
from itertools import product 

def flood_fill(img):

    rows, cols = img.shape

    components = {}
    component_id = -1
    seen = set()

    for (r, c) in

Continue reading →

Mines Chain Reaction

This post is based on a question asked during the Challenge 24 programming competition. Given the locations of a number of land mines as X and Y coordinates and their blast radius R. What is the minimum number of mines that need to be detonated such that all mines are detonated. When a mine is detonated it detonates all mines within its blast radius and the process repeats.


Here’s a simple example with 13 mines. In this case the optimal solution is to detonate mines 0, 3 and 8 which will detonate all others. It’s not the only solution.

Screenshot 2016-05-08 21.01.38.png

The relationship between mines is not commutative. Just because mines A can reach mine B doesn’t mean that mine B reaches mine A. Therefore we can represent the mines as a directed graph where vertices are mines and there is an (unweighted) edge from mine A to mine B if mine A can directly detonate mine B.

In order to solve this problem we first...

Continue reading →

The Mighty Kalman Filter

A Kalman Filter is an algorithm for estimating the state of a system from a series of noisy measurements. That’s what I was told, and it confused me. It also doesn’t really do the Kalman filter justice. If we have a bunch of noisy measurements of something why don’t we just take the mean and be done with it? Well the impressive part is estimating the state of a system. This is something that is changing. Let’s says we have a state. This is usually a collection of variables that completely describe where something is and what it’s doing. For example if we are considering a cricket ball hit by a batsman and flying through the air towards the boundary it has a state described by its position which could be three numbers (x, y, z) and its velocity again (vx, vy, vz). In addition the cricket ball is under the effect of gravity so there are forces influencing some of the state. We also assume...

Continue reading →

Implementing a Star Camera

The orbit of a satellite can be computed from it’s location and velocity. What is more challenging is accurately determining its orientation. This is really important because satellites normally need to orient themselves to maximize the sunlight on their solar arrays and also point camera and other sensors in specific directions. There isn’t a lot to navigate with in space except the billions and billions of stars which is what a star camera does.

I thought it would be fun to try and implement a star camera. Let’s say we are given a picture of the night sky and need to determine which direction the camera is pointing in. To do this we need to compute a direction vector and also an up vector orthogonal to it so we know what the orientation of the camera is. For example, here is an image taken of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The un-cropped image in 1000 pixels square and the...

Continue reading →

Location Estimation - Part 2

In the previous article we attempted to solve this location problem. We used the power of each of a number of signals to roughly estimate our location. We managed to narrow it down to a smallish convex region in the plane shown in green below, which is about 2500 square meters near (-181, 75) . Now we want to go even further and see how accurately we can determine the exact position.

Screenshot 2016-01-16 13.09.30.png

If we take the centroid of this green region as a guess at where we are we then know approximately how far away from each tower we are. We can use this distance along with the speed of sound to work out how long each individual frequency in our received signal is delayed. For example if we are 340.29 meters away from a tower emitting a 3500Hz signal then each sample we received was actually emitted about 1 second earlier so we should phase shift the entire signal 1 second back in time to be using the...

Continue reading →