Every day, Moore’s law—technology getting cheaper, faster, better—brings more and more professional-quality robotics within the reach of amateurs. Over the past few decades we’ve seen this in wheeled, legged, and other ground-based (“2D”) robotics. Now the same forces are starting to do the same for “3D” robotics, including underwater and aerial vehicles.
The latter category, conventionally known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or, in the military, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), are perhaps the most promising new frontier for amateur robotics because, unlike underwater vehicles, they don’t require special access to deep water, can use conventional radio and GPS communications, and are based on cheap and ubiquitous Radio Controlled (RC) model aircraft, that are produced by a large and mature industry that is already aimed at amateurs.
Today the amateur UAVs movement has moved beyond university research teams and includes hundreds of individuals around the world who are building relatively inexpensive aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) that can fly autonomously, take pictures or videos and transmit them to the ground, follow navigational waypoints for aerial mapping and scientific surveys, and otherwise duplicate many of the functions once reserved for military UAVs that cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.
This session will demonstrate the leading edge of this: some of the cheapest UAVs ever built. Some are based on LEGO Mindstorms NXT, some use regular cell phones strapped to model planes, and some use hobby-grade embedded microprocessors grafted to radio control (RC) aircraft. All are fully autonomous (automated stabilization and navigation, allowing them to fly out of eyesight and RC range) and most of them cost less than $1,000. Onboard imaging systems range from gyro-stabilized digital cameras to video systems with pan-tilt gimbals and real-time downlinks and telemetry.
The point: low-cost access to the sky for anyone. By flying pre-set patterns and automatically taking hundreds or thousands GPS-tagged pictures, UAVs can populate Google Maps and other GIS services with ultra high resolution (3 cm or better), timely aerial photography. With different sensors, they can also do anything from measuring IR flux over forests to doing low-altitude pollutions sampling.
Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine, author of The Long Tail (and the forthcoming FREE), founder of DIYDrones.com, BookTour.com and GeekDad.com