Science Faction



“Go forward. Two units.”

“Tweetle tweet.” The canister looking robot rolled forward about three feet and then made another tweet noise. I spent about ten minutes talking to the plastic replica of the Star Wars robot before I reached down and shut its power off. Every now and then I take out my Astromech R2D2 interactive robot and send it for a spin around the room. Sometimes I tell it to “Patrol” and it will dutifully move around the room, using its obstacle avoiding sensors to avert collisions. I can also act as a guard, and that’s usually the most interesting function because it just sits there. After a few minutes I stop thinking about it and so later, when someone comes into the room, the robot will come to life with a startling alarm of lights and noises.

FILE0038I started building my collection of robotic devices ages ago. My first was a Wowwee Robosapien. I still have it, along with five others just like it and a pair of the Robosapien V2s which are twice its size. All together I have collected up about thirty robots that look like stubby skateboards, dogs, humanoids and tracked and wheeled devices of all stripe. All of them are capable of controlled or autonomous functions. I have another twelve autonomous creations I designed and built on my own, based mostly on the Arduino microcontroller. As it stands now, I have more than one hundred robots. I even have three robots that fly, also autonomously. One is a fixed wing airplane controlled by an ArduPilot, an autopilot based on the Arduino, and one is a eight rotor multicopter based on the 3D Robotics APM, or ArduPilot Mega. The last is controlled by 3D Robotic’s Pixhawk autopilot, a much more powerful microcontroller. It’s a quadcopter called an Iris.

Robotics is how I got into flying multicopters. I had tried for decades to become skilled at flying remote controlled airplanes and helicopters with results that, at times, had to be described as catastrophic. But when the miniaturization of electronics came along that permitted postage stamp sized computers and inertial and barometric sensors and gyroscopes, autopilots for small aircraft became possible. The military’s F-22 Raptor jet is a very capable aircraft. It is very maneuverable because as an aircraft, it’s very unstable. So unstable, in fact, a human cannot fly it. It demands that a computer, which can make thousands of measurements and decisions a second, actually control the plane. The pilot “flies by wire,” which means the pilot uses the controls to indicate what the aircraft should do, and the computer actually performs the controls. It’s a very capable autopilot system. So are the autopilots that stabilize and control the multirotors, the helicopters, and even an airplane that I fly as an aerial photography hobby. I guess you could say that pilots have become idea people whose job it is to make suggestions as to what the aircraft should do.

The technology has become so good, that we now incorporate GPS into the devices so we can make a whole series of course and altitude suggestions and the aircraft will perform them in three dimensions in the sky. Using Google Maps, I can plot the course I want my aircraft to take by creating waypoints. I then assign altitudes to these waypoints and then add certain maneuvers, if, say, I wanted the aircraft to fly to a spot and circle it as it takes video or still photographs before continuing on. The technology is good enough that the aircraft will stay within a couple of meters of the course, waypoints and altitude I designate. That’s about six feet. Pretty good for a hobby device, eh?

SAM_0188The autopilots also add a layer of safety (beyond simple control). When these aircraft are being flown manually with a radio remote control, they can take steps if something goes amiss. First, I can designate a flight area by creating a GPS fence. This is an area whose width and height I specify in advance. The autopilot will not allow me to fly out of the predesignated zone. If I happen to fly the aircraft beyond the range of the radio controller, the autopilot will kick in and fly the aircraft back to its launch point. It will also do that if it detects that the battery is getting low on charge. What used to be a fairly consistent problem with radio controlled airplanes and helicopters, fly aways, are a thing of the past. It once was that if the aircraft lost its control signal, it would fly unguided until it collided with something or ran out of fuel or battery. While the majority of the time this meant that someone’s investment and pride and joy would wander off to die in some remote place, some did property damage and some injured people. As a result, pilots had to be cautious about keeping their aircraft not only in clear sight, but within the invisible bounds of radio range. The range of the radio wasn’t a constant either. It would depend on everything from other broadcasts and signals in the air (RFI or Radio Frequency Interference) to sunspots. The safety of modern unmanned aircraft is orders of magnitude better and is constantly being improved upon, especially as technology advances.

The point to it all is experimentation and education. It’s fun to learn, and those of us who immerse ourselves to the point that we design and create our own robotic devices are a part of the development and improvement process. Even the rollers and fliers we purchase and use help the development process because we act as testers. We push the limits of what the products were intended to do, modifying them and adding things to them that the designer didn’t think of. We find ways to use them that go beyond the original intent. Sure, it’s a lot like the way that wave after wave shapes the shore, but hobby and professional use of robotics has paved the way to what’s possible right now, and indicated what will be possible soon. Not to mention that goofing with this stuff is just plain fun.

The cameras in my robots have provided me with perspectives that aren’t available without them. I have seen things from the perspective of my cats and dogs, and from the perspective of birds and flying insects. Plus that, I’ve gotten some really pretty video of the countryside, sunrises and sunsets that I wouldn’t have without my mechanical fauna.