Aerial robotics and its consequences

© 1997 Alexander Chislenko

Once in a while there appears a new technology that promises dramatic social changes. It often comes unexpectedly, from some modest-looking area of science or engineering, and I always wonder what is going to appear next.

One candidate for such new technology may be aerial robotics. People have been working on mobile robots for a while now. The most difficult issue with walking robots seems to be orientation in the environment. Image recognition is a very costly and difficult task, and it is essential for moving around on land. Not that much in other environments though - like air or water. There are additional difficulties of aerial robotics: the craft must have efficient and light-weight equipment for position identification and communication - but these problems are now resolved with cellular modems and GPS.

So now you can build little blimps, planes and helicopters that can fly around and do things. Aerial robots may free people from many tasks that are "dull, dirty, or dangerous" (D3) - or costly: a pigeon-sized flying robot may quickly accomplish missions - like deliver your pills from the farmacy, or take a picture of a corn field from the air - that now require a car or a helicopter.

You don't have to own an aerial robot. They may be available for hire at a very low price (a few dollars an hour or less), and you could rent one for a 5-minute mission for a quarter. The robots could also refuel themselves at automated gas stations, paying with digital cash there - so they will require minimal maintenance from an owner.

Now, let me list some interesting things that aerial robots could do:

- collect information: a flying robot can visit places, or follow objects, and record and/or transmit everything it can observe. That allows you to fly a little craft with a camera around the Great Canyon, or above the Eiffel tower (you can control it via Internet, and get images and sounds back), "virtually visiting" a real museum by flying a WebCam- equipped blimp through its halls, following wild animals and cute girls, spying after [potential?] criminals or anybody else, etc.

[ An interesting issue here is that it may be very difficult to identify who the robot is serving at any particular moment. So physical tasks can be as anonymous as Internet communications. ]

- deliver small physical objects. Getting pills or apples is one example. There are more fun things to do though. You can drop a dead frog on your neighbor's head. Or spray some foul substance over a crowd. Or deliver drugs - quickly and anonymously. Or shoot somebody from the air. You can also steal small things by driving robots remotely, or teaching them to pick up rings, dollar bills, etc.

It seems that the features of small aerial robots - being aiborne, cheap and anonymous - allow to do lots of things from which the society doesn't have much protection. Introduction of aerial robots that is likely to happen on a large scale within the next 5 to 10 years, may deliver multiple benefits, and at the same time create quite a turmoil. - And wait until we have lots of swimming and running little robots.

If you are interested, there is more practical info at 1997 International Aerial Robotics Competition page

[ I am grateful to Fred Hapgood who pointed me to this field ]

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