Apr 20 2012

Drone Delivery


I was reading this article the other day and got a good laugh. But I had to agree with the writer: “Here’s the idea as outlined on customers download a smartphone app, which allows them to order tacos to a specific location. The tacos then arrive via flying quadcopter. Tipping your delivery drone is presumably optional. That’s it. It’s so brilliant, we can’t believe the kids down at the GRASP Lab haven’t already cornered the market on this.”

The “Taco Copter” might be a joke, but the concept itself isn’t. And it’s implications need to be examined, because it has much broader impact than what you might see at first glance. It’s that phrase “delivery drone” that you should be focused on.

Because we are on the verge of creating exactly that; a fully automated end to end delivery system from factory to home. From the manufacturing robots to the “automated warehouse” run by drones to the soon-to-be-automated “self driving transport trucks” to the final link from the local delivery warehouse to you home via a quadcopter, it will soon be possible to create an item exactly when a person purchases it and then deliver it directly to the end user. Toss in the developments I discussed in “Adding our Way to Abundance” for H+ magazine with 3d printers making it possible for manufacturers to make any given item in an “on demand” manner, instead of the current “always on” production lines of the industrial era, and what you have is a recipe for unprecedented levels of customer convenience. Imagine ordering a taco on your smartphone during a traffic jam, and getting it brought to your car window. Imagine getting that new dress custom made to your measurements and delivered direct to your door. Imagine never having to travel to a grocery store — or to any kind of store — to shop again.

But that’s kind of tame compared to some of the other possibilities, like using quadcopters to create on demand supply systems for regions that have no roads, no airports, and no modern infrastructure of any kind.  That’s the idea behind “Matternet,” a concept proposed at a recent Singularity University conference. Imagine a village in the Amazon having the same ability to order goods and services from half a world away that you do sitting right there in front of your computer. Then imagine a billion people all over the world being able to make products using native techniques and trade them with any other person in the world, directly, instead of having to go through some 3rd party that pays them pennies per dollar.

That’s what fully automated delivery networks using drones of various kinds could enable. Rather than a product only being available in certain regions, every corner of the world could be accessed as easily as your corner store. You could be walking down the street in NYC and have a drone home in on your smartphones gps location as easily as walking through the Amazon jungle. Military troops in the field could receive supplies just as easily. An expedition to Everest would be just as easy to reach with Quadcopters.

But even that’s not the end, because, as I pointed out in “Quadrotors Will Do Everything,” simple delivery systems are merely the tip of the iceberg. Automated drone systems could not merely deliver goods, but provide services of all kinds, from construction to telepresence. Drones could, in fact, render many labor or people intensive jobs obsolete. A fully automated US Post office could run for a fraction of the cost of the current mail carriers. Drone trucks on our highways could be far safer by eliminating drivers who are too tired, or careless. Drone in those remaining retail stores could ensure they are always stocked, freeing the human workers to concentrate on customer service

Dec 13 2011

Quadrotors Will Do Everything (Well, Almost)


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.  In short, it’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 it’s a public demonstration, so I’m sure foam was chosen not only because it’s light enough to not place a major strain on the copters, but because it’s soft enough to not cause injuries if the tower falls over. The materials are meaningless however, because it’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 we’re seeing stories about quadrotors being used as I described.

But I’m not the only one who’s seen how useful quadrotor could be. In a recent blog post, K. Eric Drexler asked “Where are the Parrots?” He looks at the robots used to explore the Fukushima reactor, a pair of Monirobo’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 that  many “Very Serious People” are dismissive of “toys”

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

That’s a video of China’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 “control interface” that is entirely virtual, powered by a Kinect.

While I think full “mind control” 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.

There’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. I’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 “told you so!” : )