The Papa-TV-Bot

Have you ever wondered how the world looks through the eyes of a humming bird? Imagine a basketball game: You watch the players from twenty feet altitude and then—within seconds—go down to three inches above the court floor. Then you follow the player with the ball across the whole court, just one foot above his shoulder. You pass him and climb up quickly to one inch above the basket, right in time for the slam. Soon you will be able to have these possibilities! I am working on a project that should enable us to realize those rather unusual viewpoints and perspective changes. Let me describe it to you.

Actually, the device that I plan to build looks more like a little unobtrusive UFO than a bird. It is a Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) with a built in wireless camera, its "eye." The overall size of this MAV is about half a foot and its weight around seven ounces. It is completely independent from the rest of the world. It flies autonomously, without being controlled by a human operator, much like an insect or a humming bird. In fact, it will often be standing in the air, motionless, rather than moving around. Four small impellers (propellers which are hidden in its fuselage) give it the possibility to hover like a helicopter. That's also the reason it doesn't need wings or fins like a normal airplane. To launch this MAV all we have to do is to press its big power button and to put it somewhere in the air—for example, just in front of you. The MAV starts its little electric motors and stabilizes itself automatically, so that it stays exactly where you have put it. For this purpose, it uses several micro sensors to measure its acceleration and altitude.

The MAV can do more than just float motionlessly somewhere in the air. You can tell it to move up, down, left, right, and it will do so. The expression "tell it" is meant literally. It has a built in speech recognizer, and it can "understand" and react to spoken commands, either directly or through a walkie-talkie like remote listening device. You can also tell it to do more complicated tasks, such as follow you (or someone else) at a certain distance and altitude. After all, you can tell it also just to go away and leave you alone. This can be useful for different reasons. The MAV can carry (but is not limited to) a wireless video camera. In this configuration, it is actually a micro camera autonomously flying and operating. That's why I call it Paparazzi Television Mobot (where mobot stands for "mobile robot"), or in short: Papa-TV-Bot! Obviously, an object behaving like the Paparazzi can be annoying, so the "leave me alone" feature can be useful.

The Papa-TV-Bot is able to convey pictures of unusual or otherwise impossible angles for events such as
  • Entertainment shows, like concerts and sports events: hovering over the open field, taking shots from directly above the audience, extreme close-up shots, etc.
  • Hazards of all kinds, such as radiated areas, hostage situations, and structurally unstable buildings, where it is too dangerous to send humans
As it is supposed to fly over crowds of people and to approach objects very closely, it has built in "evasive abilities," much like an animal. If somebody tries to catch it, it evades. If it runs into any sort of obstacle during its filming jobs, it tries actively to get around them. For this purpose, it is equipped with environmental sensors to give it a crude situational awareness of what is happening around it.

Obviously, the Papa-TV-Bot has to have a certain intelligence to fulfill the tasks we give it. I am not trying to implement these intelligent behaviors as a whole, but rather let them evolve and let the Papa-TV-Bot learn from experience. For this purpose, I plan to use the methods of Artificial Life researchers, who work on similar problems of intelligent systems. These researchers have successfully applied these methods for small ground-based mobots.

Last, but not least, as it still is a machine that can fail mechanically, there are several security precautions. If the engines or the electronics fail, the last action of a Papa-TV-Bot will be to inflate a big balloon, which covers most of the surface of the little unoperational artificial insect, much like an airbag of a car. Transformed into a sort of big soft basketball, it can fall back to earth, hopefully without causing any harm when touching the ground.

I wrote this article as an exercise for MIT class 21F.225, during February 1998. It is a contribution to a booklet, which describes "the exciting and important projects undertaken by MIT students. It is intended for distribution to schools, parents of future students, and many dfferent companies."

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Send me some comments! Stefan Marti Last updated Apr 15 1998.

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