Researcher: Future of UAVs includes personal flying droids

Some interesting thinking in this week's Robots Podcast, on the past 50 years and next 50 years of robotics. One of those interviewed is Jean-Christophe Zufferey, who focuses on UAVs. Along with discussing the past two decades' advances in UAVs very well, he speculates on what's next, including the idea of "personal UAVs", like flying assistant droids, which could give you an aerial view of your surroundings or do communications relay.

He also discusses the possibility of "3D elevators" or transportation UAVs, that would allow commuter aircraft without the danger and complexity of having to drive. You'd just get in, give it a destination, and get out when you got there.

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Comment by Lew Payne on May 10, 2010 at 9:54am
"transportation UAVs - You'd just get in, give it a destination, and get out when you got there." - Let's see now... they're already hacking the electronic control unit (ECU) on cars and motorcycles. The next step will be to hack the "transportation UAV" controller - and no doubt, lots of amateurs will be doing it on a trial-and-error basis. "Whoops... it crashed... oh well, I need to debug that code to keep it from veering off-course and killing others."

Welcome to the dawn of a new era.

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on May 10, 2010 at 10:18am
Well, this morning I took an unmanned elevator to an unmanned train (the shuttle at the airport). Once upon a time there were elevator operators and airport shuttle train drivers, but eventually we came up with safety systems that allowed them to become unmanned. I'm sure the first people who contemplated an elevator without an operator were concerned about the safety risk and freaked out by the idea of putting their lives in the hands of a machine. But today why don't give it a second thought.

Obviously unmanned flight is tougher, but modern passenger aircraft autopilots are so well tested and robust that they're often considered safer than the pilots. Now add a few more decades of technology development and you can imagine a day when UAVs in the sky are a totally accepted thing. I wouldn't be surprised that in 50 years Zufferey is right.

Comment by Gary Mortimer on May 10, 2010 at 10:21am
Bring me my flying car
Comment by Jack Crossfire on May 10, 2010 at 11:06am
The main problems are energy storage, position sensing, & manufacturing quality. The AR drone sounded like it could almost be there if they could really mass produce it at $400 but it doesn't sound like either the cost or the reliability worked out.

Comment by Jani Hirvinen on May 10, 2010 at 11:54am
How this sounds like "The Fift Element" movie where Bruse Willis have hacked taxis and other stuff.. But yes if we would just have good inertia engines it would be possible and even easy :)
Comment by Overwatch on May 10, 2010 at 12:12pm
Or a battery of high-performance and even-higher-noise Wankel engines, like what that Moller guy has.
Comment by Lew Payne on May 10, 2010 at 12:39pm
@Chris - Apples to oranges. Elevators, escalators and trains travel a fixed path, via guide rails or other means. In addition, their path is dedicated, and not shared with other traffic or obstacles. Trains that share a path with other traffic have conductors on-board, and a means of alerting (and blocking) cross-traffic up ahead. The same cannot be said of aerial vehicles, which is the subject of this thread.

As to fatalities, "Incidents involving elevators and escalators kill about 30 and seriously injure about 17,100 people each year in the United States, according to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and
the Consumer Product Safety Commission." I bet those 17,100 people each year have a bit more respect for the dangers posed by unmanned systems.
Comment by Overwatch on May 10, 2010 at 12:48pm
Are those incidents caused by the elevator being an unmanned system or by gross negligence and lack of mechanical maintenance?

In other words, would the presence of a human operator alter the 17,000 figure in any significant way?

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on May 10, 2010 at 12:49pm
@Lew: Okay, what about the little car that parked itself with a press of the button in front of me today? My point is not this is comparable, but they're all on the same continuum. I'd bet money that you'll have UAVs flying for FedEx in the US within 10-15 years, sharing the skies and airports with manned aircraft. How much further is to extend that to passenger planes, too? Remember, 50 years is a long time.
Comment by Lew Payne on May 10, 2010 at 1:13pm
@Chris - I'm just a hobbyist pursuing technical truth. As such, I try to stick with facts rather than analogies which serve little purpose other than to distort the technical constraints. I'm not sure how little cars that park themselves are germane to the topic of personal flying droids, except to lead one down a path of assumption.

Assuming that twenty percent (20%) of today's existing land vehicles are replaced or augmented with UAV's, the result would be massive airspace congestion (study by MITRE Corp). If I were to operate strictly on the basis of analogy and assumption rather than fact, I could easily solve that problem by stating we will have invented a shrinking machine... after all, if they can shrink cancer cells, then they should be able to shrink people (who are just cells, after all). Such an analogy, of course, is without basis and highly unscientific.

I'd be happy to make that 50 year bet with you. I just won't be able to collect.


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