What’s so great about toys?

“I don’t get why you like these flying things of yours.” commented an acquaintance. “It’s just a child’s toy after all, isn’t it?”

As a matter of fact, no. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The quadracopters and hexacopters I have fill an important function in my life: they help me learn. There is a large amount of math that goes into the software that programs their onboard computers and keeps them stable. So, in order to use –or play– with these devices, I have to constantly challenge and increase what I know. The brain is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, it will atrophy just as many of my muscles have because of disability. There is also a sense of creative satisfaction that goes along with succeeding in the assembly and modification of the drones, and those lessons lead to the ability to create my own aircraft as I learn the concepts and discover how to apply the mathematics and resulting algorithms to their programming.

It was the same with my ground based robots. I began by buying a robot; it was a Wowwee RoboSapien. As I played with it I began to learn more about it and how it accomplished things. That led to my making it do other things, things the designer, Mark Tilden, didn’t have in mind. But he built the RoboSapien to be modified, or hacked as it’s called. Eventually I had a collection of twelve of the robots, each able to do more than it could when it rolled off the factory production line. And, after a time, I had the robots acting in concert with one another. From there I began to design my own robots and then design robots that could operate autonomously. The tasks they performed were simple; I built one to be able to navigate around while avoiding obstacles and then, using heat and motion sensors, trained it to seek out the cats in the house. Effectively building little mechanical stalkers. They could tell the difference between cats and people because I taught them how to discern the range of heat emanating from target bodies as well as their size. Had I chosen to make them more exact yet, I could have applied color recognition as well and told them to only pursue an orange tabby or a gray tiger stripe.

The multicopters are merely an extension of the gravity trapped robots. They work in similar ways, but have even more sensors to use to make decisions with. I have GPS to work with to calculate the position of my drone in three dimensions, inertial movement detectors that can keep better track of the devices attitude, knowing more about the multicopter’s arms than my brain can track my physical arms. Barometers to determine altitude from the ground, compass to know direction, and high definition cameras to provide visual feedback as well. The drones are aerial fauna, a kind of mechanical service animal that allows me to see things –and see them from different perspectives, often perspectives unavailable to able bodied people. As a result, I expand my knowledge and my world through these machines while at the same time expanding my knowledge and my skills. They allow me to be productive and to contribute to the general pool of knowledge as I chat with other enthusiasts about our interests and discoveries. In a tiny way, I contribute to the sciences, both material and theoretical. That I happen to enjoy what I’m doing, that I have fun doing it is a bonus.

Certainly I’m not out on the leading edge of technology. But I am learning and sharing sciences and technologies. I’m learning ways to live an interesting and fruitful life in spite of the physical challenges I’ve been saddled with. So no. I don’t think what I do is a waste of time nor do I believe it to be juvenile. Of course it can be a bit juvenile, but then again that’s just a part of what makes it all fun. Everybody plays in their own way. The vast majority of people like to be creative, like to learn, and enjoy expanding their horizons. Most people like to see and experience the world and their environment. The multi-rotor aircraft I enjoy allow me to satisfy my urges to experience the wonders of technology, nature and environment.