By Valkyrie Ice
About a year ago I wrote an article for H+ magazine on the use of quadrotors for a variety of purposes, ranging from VR telepresence units to sensor platforms for dangerous environments to construction.
So, you can imagine my reaction on reading this article on Singularity Hub.Â In short, itâ€™s about a demonstration of robotic assembly, done by quadrotors under computer control, building a 20 foot tall tower out of lightweight foam blocks. Foam might not sound impressive, but itâ€™s a public demonstration, so Iâ€™m sure foam was chosen not only because itâ€™s light enough to not place a major strain on the copters, but because itâ€™s soft enough to not cause injuries if the tower falls over. The materials are meaningless however, because itâ€™s the control systems that are the real story. Fifty quadrotors will fly under complete computer control, having to navigate not just the static environment, but the variable obstacle course of all the other quadrotors, the changing environment of the tower being built and maybe even having to dodge the occasional overly curious onlooker. As you can probably imagine, I had to grin. Not even a full year later, and already weâ€™re seeing stories about quadrotors being used as I described.
But Iâ€™m not the only one whoâ€™s seen how useful quadrotor could be. In a recent blog post, K. Eric Drexler asked â€œWhere are the Parrots?â€Â He looks at the robots used to explore the Fukushima reactor, a pair of Moniroboâ€™s, a track based one armed robot that have a top speed of 2.4 kph, and weigh 600kg, and has to wonder why such clumsy robots were being used when the Parrot AR drone makes a far superior platform for the job. He points out thatÂ many â€œVery Serious Peopleâ€ are dismissive of â€œtoysâ€
So I decided to do a review and take a look at what sort of developments have been happening with quadrotors over the last year. First up, I have a video from January of 2011, just a few months after my original article.
As you can see, this features construction with modular materials… in this case, magnetically connectable girders. It provides an illustration of the most basic concept of the quadrotor construction battalion.
However, to really appreciate the potential here I have another video for you
Thatâ€™s a video of Chinaâ€™s Broad Group building a modular hotel in less than one week. Now replace every human worker in the video with a quadrotor and you can probably guess what the upcoming demo is going to look like.
Precision swarming has also made advances since that first video, as this one from September of 2011 illustrates.
These videos are from the ETH labs in Zurich, and are part of a great series of quadrotor developments they have made, but autonomous flight is not the only kind of developments they are working on.
I found a very interesting video in which they are demonstrating a â€œcontrol interfaceâ€ that is entirely virtual, powered by a Kinect.
While I think full â€œmind controlâ€ of quadrotors via an emotive epoch style headset is what will eventually become the primary control interface of an RTU drone, the Kinect demo shows how intuitive we can make the control systems for everyday use of quadroters. This ease of use is one of the primary advantages of using quadrotors as camera and sensor platforms for dangerous environment navigation, like the Fukushima reactors.
Thereâ€™s lots more interesting videos out there covering the many capabilities of quadrotors, from DIY projects to various university reports, and they all continue to say the same thing I first thought a year ago. Quadrotors are neither a toy, nor a curiosity. They are the first primitive stages of a variety of useful tools that will reshape how we do many things. Iâ€™m looking forward to seeing videos of the construction demo, because I love seeing the future be developed right in front of me.
And of course, getting to say â€œtold you so!â€ : )