Quadcopters

Seeing this video made me realize that quadcopters are more advanced than I thought, which got me thinking about potential applications. One that came to mind was human-computer interactions.

To interact with someone as an equal we expect them to be at eye level (which is a huge problem for people in wheelchairs), and I assume the same will apply if we ever deal with intelligent machines.

In science fiction the usual solution is to put the intelligence in human-sized robots, such as C-3PO and Robbie the Robot. Smaller robots, such as R2-D2 and Wall-E, are generally portrayed as being child-like and inferior.

However, in his Culture novels, science fiction author Iain M Banks has another approach – small robots that float at eye level. These robots, called drones, range in size from hockey pucks up to rubbish bins, and are usually far more intelligent than the humans they deal with. And I suspect we could build a half-decent drone using existing quadcopter technology.

The intelligence behind the ‘copter would be housed remotely, and the only extra features you’d need on-board would be wireless comms, a decent speaker, a camera, a glowing component to show “emotion”, and centimetre-accuracy navigation. Apart from the centimetre accuracy, that’s mostly stuff you’d find in a cheap smartphone. I’d also like it to carry out “nodding” and “head shaking” manoeuvres, but I assume that’s already possible with quadcopters.

I’d be really interested to see how people interact with a talking quadcopter. Would they actually engage as though it were alive, or would they treat it as just another computer, like a flying automatic teller machine? If they do engage, I could imagine quadcopter drones being used as tour guides and customer service reps.

On an unrelated note, does anyone know why the quadcopter is the dominant design? Surely a tri-copter would be just as stable, and cheaper to manufacture?

Update: I don’t why I ask speculative questions when I can just look up Wikipedia. According to this page four rotors make sense because two of them can be counter-rotating, providing more stability. And they give you three axes of rotational motion, so “nodding” and “head shaking” are definitely possible.

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2 Comments on “Quadcopters”

  1. adambliss says:

    I’ve also been intrigued by this idea. The problems I see right now are (1) battery (commercial quadricopters seem to get about 5 minutes of flight time per 30-minute charge), (2) noise, and (3) environmental support (most research is done with external position-sensing equipment and safety nets, not around the house or out in the world).

    I don’t know for sure, but I can think of a a few reasons to prefer four rotors over three. First, with an even number it’s easy to do counterrotation to achieve zero total angular momentum. Second, it’s easier to code in a rectilinear 3-axis coordinate system, and four rotors in a plane makes it easy to address x and y as independent axes. But both of these could be solved by more advanced software.

    • mattkwan says:

      What you really need is some kind of base station platform where a quadcopter can charge through its “feet”. The base station can also serve as a positioning beacon.

      If quadcopters use counter-rotating blades then four rotors makes sense. You could get an extra degree of freedom (about the Z axis) by speeding up the clockwise rotors while slowing the anti-clockwise ones, and vice-versa. Maybe I should just cough up the $50 and find out for sure!


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