14 August 2009

Simplifying UAV Controls

Over at MIT, a small group of grad students recently figured out how to control UAV’s using an iPhone, instead of the “complex, suitcase-sized controller that soldiers must haul around to control hand-thrown Raven (UAV’s).”

As reported at Wired’s DangerRoom blog, “In six weeks, we went from the idea to a real flight test,” using MIT’s indoor robot range... The total cost? $5,000 for a new, commercially available, quad-rotor robot — plus the cost of iPhones for her crew… It relies on only the iPhone’s existing gear, and the phone can still be used for regular calls, web-browsing, texting, etc.”

Hmmmmm– a small team of talented people, working on a shoestring budget ($5K? Really?) and a cannonball schedule (6 weeks!), successfully use existing, familiar, mature technology as a way to simplify the operations of a previously complex endeavor. Now, where have I heard that formula before? All in favor of launching a 10 year, $2.7B project to confirm their findings, say “Kick me!”

Interestingly, the MIT crew touts the iPhone “Drone Control App” as having some cool real-world uses. “Not only would a iPhone-like controller make soldiers’ jobs much easier, it also opens up UAVs to a whole new, non-military market. If robot control is cheap and intuitive, people might find all kinds of new uses. Cummings’ own favorite: “Being able to launch one out of the window and fly it down to the Starbucks, to tell me how many people are in line, so I know when to get coffee.””

Sure, it’d be cool to send out a pocket-sized UAV, controlled by an iPhone, to scout whether the line at Starbucks is long. But a website with a Line Cam would do jus as well. What would be really cool is if the little drone could handle ordering, paying and hauling a cup of java back to home base. Now THAT’s a killer app. Moving atoms around is something the internet just can't do for us (yet?).

Second thought - I probably got that backwards. The killer app is for Starbucks to field a swarm of UAVs that can fly around the city and deliver coffee, which you ordered via your location-aware iPhone. The UAV swoops in and brings you coffee (or pizza, chinese food, etc) to your precise GPS coordinates. UAV delivery is coming, I tell you, it's coming...

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