I’m a sucker for remote controlled helicopters. They’re a blast whether you use them indoors to terrorize your colleagues or outdoors to terrorize your neighbours. But as cool as remote helis are, they don’t hold a candle to remote quadrocopters, or quad-rotors as they’re sometimes called.
Especially when said quadrocopters are remotely controlled by a computer to execute a complex yet beautiful set of manoeuvres. Did I mention there’s also music involved?
Check out this amazing video that demonstrates the potential of these tiny machines. The performance was created by Vijay Kumar and his team at the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania and presented as part of Kumar’s TED2012 talk. This group of engineers studies how swarms of robots such as these quadricopters can work together – sensing each other in real time and reacting appropriately.
I’m not the first person to make the connection between this performance and the zany musical exploits of perennial YouTube favourites OK Go, and for good reason: each takes music performance to a whole new level.
If you’re curious, do a few searches for quad-copter or quad-rotors on YouTube – you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find. These four-rotor machines are supremely maneuverable and can hover in one spot with a greater precision than a single-rotor craft.
When we attended CES 2012 earlier this year, we had a chance to see the latest version of the Parrot AR.Drone, a quadrocopter with some unique features and a price tag that is within reach of most hobbyists: Approx. $300 USD. While not quite as powerful or precise as the models being flown by the team from GRASP, the AR.Drone is still a fantastic piece of robotic tech.
Let’s just hope we never anger the computers controlling these flying machines, or we might be the next to be terrorized!
Forget about the iRobot Roomba – that thing is boring. I mean yes, it will clean up your house automatically and that’s always a good thing, but what happens when it misses a spot? Or what if your cat is bored with its fake mice chew toys or what if you really just want to control the vacuum yourself?
Moneual Labs to the rescue with a robotic vacuum you can steer wirelessly using a controller that looks like it was stolen from a PS3. Now that’s more like it.
I confess, at the age of 41 I am still completely drawn in by cool toys, even if they are targeted to a much younger audience.
It’s not that I didn’t get some great toys as a kid – I did. But my dreams always seemed to exceed reality and most of the toys I had were less exciting than I wanted them to be.
One example from my youth is the VertiBird, a remote-controlled helicopter that was tethered to a central base station by way of a rigid control arm. The tiny chopper could rise and fall through the air and circle forward or backward around the base station. It even came with a tail hook that could be used to lift the plastic “getaway” car and obstacle that came in the package. It was hours of fun, but I have always wished it could fly around the room with complete freedom.
Until a few years ago that wish was nothing more than that – a wish. Then suddenly, onto the toy scene burst a wave of remote helis that were the same size and shape as the Whirlybird but this time they really could go anywhere and stay aloft for up to 5 minutes assuming you could keep them from crashing – not an easy thing to do. But they were super fun, and unbelievably cheap at between $25 – $50. The one I bought for myself my son two seasons ago is still limping along having long since exceeded all my expectations for amusement.
But naturally a remote heli enthusiast like me (and now my son) wants even more. And until I saw a YouTube demo of Parrot’s AR.Drone Quadricopter, I had no idea what “more” could mean.
The AR.Drone is a remote controlled chopper like no other. It is controlled by Wi-Fi via an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad (NOT included) and soon other platforms like Android devices. It can be flown indoors and outdoors my adding or removing special “hulls” that surround the 4 propellers and protect them from impacts. It has two on-board cameras – one facing front, the other facing down. If this isn’t already sounding like the most awesome toy ever you must be from the future.
The app that controls the AR.Drone is called AR.Freeflight which is free on Apple’s App Store. The app gives you full control over the choppers movement and camera views. But wait, it gets better. Parrot has released their AR.Drone SDK, which allows any developer to create additional apps that layer functionality on top of AR.Freeflight’s basic controls. One example of this is the AR.Pursuit app which uses an augmented reality system to superimpose missile and gun-based dogfighting over the front camera’s feed. I’m giddy just describing it.
The good news is that Canadians can now get their hands on the UK invention from big box retailer Best Buy. The bad news – this is not a flyweight purchase. At $349 the AR.Drone won’t be making its way under tons of trees this year – especially if an i-device isn’t already in the hands of the prospective new pilot. But for those who are willing to invest the money, bragging rights – and some awesome flying experiences can be… had… with… a… click.