Thursday, November 12, 2009

There's an App for That?!?!

The growing proliferation of robots (corresponding to the ubiquity of technology and/or drop(s) in prices) continues.

The latest example: as mentioned earlier, a lab at MIT has developed a application for the iPhone that allows a user to connect to a relatively cheap ($5,000 or so) quad-rotor helicopter available from Ascending Technologies GmbH.

What is key to the application is that the robot is finding 'its own way.' As demonstrated in the video, the user simply identifies an end point, and the mini-UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) plots its path to the target. (Presumably avoiding obstacles, like the vertical column seen in the video, in the process.)

The UAV is equipped with a camera, making the military applications obvious: seeing around corners, looking at the top of roofs for snipers, examining possible IEDs. But the availability of the components (and lost cost thereof) will mean that 'bad guys' will also have the technology. In addition, one could imagine civilian users who might also use the device for less-than-admirable ends.

In her talk on Tuesday, Dr. Cummings alluded to the Federal Aviation Administration's concern about these micro UAVs. Indeed, the FAA has started to issue regulations and related certificates for such UAVs: Honeywell received one of the first certificates in 2005 to test an untethered UAV on the Laguna Indian Reservation (about 45 miles from Albuquerque); interestingly, the FAA, in issuing such a certificate, evaluates the airworthiness of the entire system, not just the drone. Among the FAA's current requirements, there must be a ground observer or an accompanying “chase” aircraft must maintain visual contact with the drone, to insure that there is no interference with other aircraft. In February 2007, the FAA published medical certification requirements for pilots who are 'operating' UAVs.

This field will clearly continue to grow, and the FAAs ability to safely manage US airspace will be an ongoing challenge. Introduction of such mini UAVs in a battlefield situation (over Afghanistan or Pakistan, for example) will require coordination between various service.

(As an aside, radio-controlled (RC) model aircraft are subject to other rules, and are not supposed to be flown more than 400 feet off the ground.)

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