SkyCall - Guided By A Drone
Written by Mike James   
Saturday, 14 September 2013

MIT researchers have surpassed themselves in thinking up a new use for a drone, a quadcopter to be exact. Lost? No problem. just summon SkyCall.

There is a sense in which the recent upsurge in quadcopter research is a solution in search of a problem. There are a few, mostly surveillance, tasks that you can see that a quadcopter makes sense for. In most of these cases, however, it is enough to allow a human to pilot the drone - no AI required.

About the only example of a quadcopter needing autonomous navigation that seems even slightly plausible is the drone pizza delivery service. Place pizza in the receptacle and let the drone just navigate to the customer's door and back again. Of course even in this case there are huge problems - how does the drone ring the door bell, interact with the customer and, even if AI could solve these problems, you still have the simple engineering task of making a drone that can lift a pizza and have enough battery life to deliver it. And then there is the noise - quadcopters are noisy, very noisy.

Now MIT Senseable City Lab, which explores UAV technology, has an idea that could work. As illustrated in this video. it's a way to guide MIT freshmen find their way around the confusing MIT campus. You can see that the same idea would work for an equally clueless tourist. The quadcopter need to have onboard navigation, a camera and a lot of processing power to make sure it doesn't bump into things and people. All the potential user has to do is use the SkyCall app and summon help. 

Now watch the video and see if you can spot what is missing:

 

The simple answer to what is missing is - noise.

In the video the quadcopter drifts about as if it was a maglev vehicle. In reality there would be a loud buzzing and a backwash of air. Would you want to follow a lawnmower in the sky? Could you have a conversation while following? And I doubt passersby would simply ignore it. Not to mention the problems of keeping the thing flying for long enough. The AI parts of the challenge, however, look interesting and achievable. Now if only we could build a quiet drone that could fly for hours on one charge.

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