I have the maturity of a twelve year old when it comes to toys. Whether they’re the little tiny wind up kind that cost 89 cents or a radio controlled ground or air vehicle pricing out at two grand, I’m a total sucker for toys. I will say in my defense that there has to be some specific quality to the toy to attract my attention. A box of Crayolas or a Beanie Baby will excite me about as much as a root canal. I think it has something to do with cleverness and engineering that decides it for me.
The tiny wind up toys are fascinating, their little gears causing them to move in expected but amusing ways. I mean, who thinks up a penguin that hops four steps forward, turns 180 degrees and then hops four times again, repeating this until the spring expends its last kinetic energy? Sure, the animals or vehicles their outer shells represent are cute, but pop those off and look at the Rube Goldberg gear train that makes it go and decide if your mind can conceive of such a mechanism. Mine can’t. I can barely understand how these things work even as I watch them operate. Then again, I think these things are as amusing with their little bodies on or off; both make me laugh with delight. My wife indulges my shameless affection for these mighty mites. She’s always on the lookout for one I haven’t seen and makes it a point to buy it for me. I have a windowsill and a desk that are crowded with these to the point that my toys are jealous of the densely overpopulated sections of Dehli, India.
In my living room are rows of bread racks. They’re six feet wide, six feet tall and two feet deep. They are packed with robots. From Wowwee Robosapiens to RoboBrothers RoboPhilo, I’d hate to take a guess at the value of this collection of mechanized movers. Some are humanoid and others take on a variety of shapes from animals to science fiction spawned vehicles. The prominent characteristic of these robots is that they all, every one, can operate autonomously. If they didn’t come that way, I modified them so they were. They will avoid obstacles and drop offs like stairwells and parade around on their clunky or whining way until their batteries deplete. I have to set aside days of the year to recharging or replacing batteries lest they die expensively, and some batteries will retaliate neglect by oozing some foul liquid that will eat away the electrical contacts or any other nearby metal.
I have shelves of radio controlled helicopters. I have given up flying them because I invariably crash them tragically. Their lot in life is to acts as a muse for my imagination, fueling some cranial fantasy of one day being able to fly them with aerobatic skills that leaves large audiences ooh-ing and ahh-ing at my dexterity. Never mind that in reality I have the ineptitude of that kid in fourth grade who had pimples, a misbuttoned shirt, horn rimmed glasses repaired with tape over the nose and a safety pin holding the earpiece, and breath so noxious it could be used to poison gophers out of their golf course tunnels. When it comes to R/C helicopters, I’m a blank faced drooling idiot. But I do so love their technology and style. Their role as a muse is okay with me, I do admit I lament the price I paid though.
Of course I have airplanes too. Fixed wing fliers that I CAN fly quite handily, thank you, as well as a number of R/C cars and trucks -some of which I have turned autonomous. These little rollers will search the heavens for GPS satellites and find their way remarkable distances. My personal best so far is a course three miles long that navigated around a nearby park. It managed to avoid all of the pratfalls just waiting to waylay a little electric vehicle. It’s amazing what you can make a little Bigfoot wheeled vehicle do with a few ultrasonic range finders and a microprocesor board with a GPS receiver attached. I don’t mean to brag; I just needed something to fill my time as a disabled person and making something more able than I am seemed like a good idea. Besides, I merely followed the works of a multitude of other inventors and tinkerers and the tutorials of the many companies that made the components.
Then came the multicopters. Drones, as people call them. I don’t think of them as drones. To me a drone is something made to spy or shoot at individuals while controlled by a pilot sitting in an office half a world away. While my aircraft are able to fly on their own, their ability to spy is equal to my ability with R/C helicopters. They are, however, able to do thousands of things using their single major ability: taking beautiful aerial video of breathtaking natural scenery. As a subset to that ability comes a long list of research, herd maintenance, mapping and on and on. But spying? No. Not hardly. It’s difficult to be stealthy when your propellers are as loud as a train whistle and your average flight time is fifteen minutes or less. When I hear about the objections to these little aerial devices I just want to go slap them and ask them “where’s your brain?” People are a lot more likely to get photographed by one of the millions of people running around snapping photos and videos with their phones. Are they a danger to society? Well, yes they can be. But there are a lot fewer accidents involving UAVs than there are involving step ladders, and the stubby ladders produce more mayhem to the body than the little aircraft. Hands down! Fortunately, the incidence of accidents is proportional to the number of rational versus stupid operators, and the vast majority of us flyers are averse to damaging our two thousand plus dollar aircraft. Add in the expensive cameras we fly and it’s not difficult to understand why we’re so careful.
I got off point there. The real point is that a computer, not much bigger than a couple of postage stamps together with a radio receiver and a GPS receiver can perform absolute magic, especially for someone as retarded about rotary wing aircraft as I am. The miniature size of the motors and the controllers is amazing. The radio control receiver is actually smaller by half than a postage stamp yet it can discriminate and interpret control signals from a kilometer away using antennas that are only two inch pieces of drooping wire. The aircraft can lift as much as a couple of pounds in addition to itself. That’s just incredible. As batteries improve, as their abilities to produce a full ampere of current at lower and lower material weights, the flight times will increase. They will convert that lost weight into greater time aloft. When I was a little kid, my dad gave me a Zenith portable radio. It received only the AM band and it was the size of a breadbox and weighed 22lbs. Today, that same kind of radio fits into the earpieces of a set of glasses, the speakers as well. So many people today are pretty blase about technology, and well they might be. After all, look at all of the function stuffed into a smartphone, and even they are getting smaller and smaller, although that’s manifested in thinness because people demand decent sized screens. But even that has an answer in the form of tiny video screens that are the lenses of glasses, back to postage stamp sizes, but positioned close to the eye gives the illusion of a life sized screen, the glasses showing almost as much as the naked eye. When you think about it that way, that when the magic of it all shows itself. Now they use those glasses attached by radio to the camera carried on the aircraft and suddenly the pilot has the same view as if she or he was sitting atop the aircraft and seeing the world from the perspective of the birds. Arthur C. Clarke once intoned that any modern technology exposed to to society ignorant of modern abilities would appear as if magic. I understand the technology and I still think of it as magical. I love my toys. They transport me to a world that stands with one foot in the past and the other in the future and gives me excitement that without those toys would be a drab and disappointing one at best.
The wealthy intone that he who dies with the most toys wins. I take a more pragmatic view. He who dies with the most toys probably had more fun until the end than those without, but they’re still dead and are unlikely to be playing with those toy posthumously.
So I engage in my idea of magic, a magic that permits me to live vicariously through the eyes and adeptness of my toys.