18 January 2014

Drones and robots, the beginning of the end?

Image Credit: Paul Fleet / Shutterstock

As robot and drone technology continues to grow, so do the fears of people who believe these technologies will one day become our overlords. However, perhaps before the reign of our metal-caretakers comes to fruition, we should take advantage of these intelligent hunks of metal while we still can.

Researchers have recently offered reasons to both fear and love robots over the last week, including a group from the University of Cincinnati who developed a new approach for drones to work on autopilot.

“Drones have gotten a very bad rap for various reasons,” says Kelly Cohen, associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at UC. “But our students see that unmanned systems can have a positive impact on society.”

The team said that with their technique, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could be used by firefighters and first responders in emergency situations, saving lives rather than deciding man’s need to be decommissioned because it is its own worst enemy.

Researchers are developing software to develop the dynamic model that is essential for autopilot design for a variety of UAVs that have multiple rotors. So far, the method has been applied to quadrotors, which are UAVs with four propellers. However, this software could be applied to work with nearly any aircraft.

“A selling point for this configuration is its efficiency, in both time and money, and the accuracy,” said Wei Wei, one of Cohen’s students. “We’re already proving it using flight-test data, and it has matched nearly perfectly. This would enable not only quadrotors, but any flying objects to operate on autopilot.”

Wei and colleagues are working with Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft (SIERRA) project to turn drones into a useful tool for first responders and firefighters. SIERRA is outfitting UAVs with global position systems, environmental data, video and fire-prediction software to give real-time information about where a fire is burning and where it is moving.

“So many times after a natural disaster, the West Virginia Division of Forestry is the first agency called to aid in determination of damage or loss, and having UAV technology at our fingertips will be an extreme asset, compared to high-cost aerial flights with a helicopter or airplane,” explained Rodger Ozburn, a regional fire specialist with the West Virginia Division of Forestry. “We would be able to obtain quick, low-cost images and video footage of damaged areas, and would be able to transfer that information to other agencies in minutes, rather than hours or days.”

SIERRA and the Cincinnati Fire Department (CFD) are teaming up for a joint search-and-rescue drill this spring to test out how drones do in these dire situations. These missions typically require firefighters to scour large areas of difficult terrain on foot while lugging heavy gear and being visually impaired by smoke. Drones do not face these same difficulties.

“With a UAV, you don’t have to worry about terrain or time of day,” Bryan Brown, leader of the SIERRA team, said in a statement. “You just go and find what you’re looking for.”

Flying drones working with first responders may be the least of the worries for a conspiracy theorist who has read about the latest robot-industry development known as RoboEarth. This is essentially a cloud database for robots to use to create an almost omniscience power when learning, similar to how humans use the Internet. Instead of designing robots to complete a single task well, robots can now be developed to continually learn how to perform a number of tasks.

RoboEarth is a giant network and database repository where robots can share information with each other. So, for example, if one robot has entered an environment for the first time and mapped it out, it can upload this information to RoboEarth so that other robots will know all about the room before entering it. Not only does it help robots learn, but it also frees up hard drive space, allowing them to access unlimited information via cloud storage rather than local storage.

“Bringing a new meaning to the phrase ‘experience is the best teacher’, the goal of RoboEarth is to allow robotic systems to benefit from the experience of other robots, paving the way for rapid advances in machine cognition and behavior, and ultimately, for more subtle and sophisticated human-machine interaction,” the RoboEarth developers wrote on their website.

The field of robotics has been a growing focus of study for scientists over the years. The robots are meant to better our lives, and potentially even help first responders save them. However, according to one legendary science fiction author, it is this naivety that could be the demise of man in the end.

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” wrote Isaac Asimov, in his classic I Robot.


Now read: Start of Robots usage, will it harvest violence


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