Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Wait -- isn't this from a Bruce Sterling novel?

Airborne microbots to create wi-fi zones in disaster situations

Autonomous flying quadcopter robots built from off-the-shelf parts in €300 kits (US$380), could establish radio networks for phones and wireless Internet in disaster zones. The system is being developed by German researchers at the Ilmenau University of Technology, which is seeking phD students to assist with the project.

When infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, it's vital that people are able to access information or call for help, and that teams on the ground can communicate efficiently. The quadcopter bots could provide ad-hoc, temporary networks for communication more quickly than technicians on the ground.


Anonymous said...

I have also seen them being tested with wireless remote video cameras mounted on them. The stated purpose is to fly into a disaster area and quickly identify survivors in order to facilitate rescue operations by pinpointing locations. Seems like an intelligent use of the technology.


Intense said...

"The quadcopter bots could provide ad-hoc, temporary networks for communication more quickly than technicians on the ground."

I am quite dubious, both about that assumption and the efficacy or capacity of the proposed copter bot tech involved to do what is suggested/required, or to work as described in the PCPro source article.

For example (from the gizmag edit):

"The bots are equipped with satellite navigation, GPS, and VIA Pico-ITX hardware. They are designed to fly to various points on high ground, for example the top of a building, and provide network coverage.

"But while the bots themselves cost €300, the batteries to power them cost €1,000 (US$1,265), and provide just 20 minutes of flying time. After the bot has landed, it can remain operational for 'several hours.'"

These $1700 (each!) micro-copters are supposedly to come with GPS, or satellite navigation capacity, and "VIA Pico-ITX"-based hardware [which is just a mini-PC x86 motherboard, btw] with radio equipment for establishing dispersed cell phone and wi-fi networks and would also be autonomous, or self-directing, and be able to robotically create such self-assembling networks in a disaster area? Somebody's got to bring them there first, just to launch them, don't they? How many robo-copters would be needed for the high bandwidth, multiplexed channels required for cell and wi-fi comm? And after 'several hours' they don't function? Maybe add solar cells for recharging, assuming it's not cloudy or night time?

The cost and limited timespan of the batteries notwithstanding, the real techno problem would be not only how to create workable "AI"-type chip-based firmware for the autonomic or robotic function to know how and where to travel/land, but the overall weight vs. power ratio involved.

Sufficiently fast processors, memory, and RC tech does not yet exist that could handle this load on an off-the-shelf parts basis. Not to mention the video processing, software, and AI-like pre-programmed code and hardware or interfacing capacity required for such hypothetical bots to be able to find and land on suitable remaining high points for these kinds/levels of mass emergency communication. It's just simply impractical as described, although it is a great idea or concept, if it could be realized.

And all this hi-tech non-existent wizardry on a relatively fragile flying platform able to function in a disaster area? What about the switching and routing equipment required for cell calls and wi-fi? Maybe this all-in-one approach could be realized in 10 or 20 years, but for now this is wi-fi pie in the windy sky gadgety proto-tech looking to provide a solution for which, in an emergency situation, there are already much more well-established, reliable, and sturdy alternatives, like tethered aerostats or the old amateur/ham radio emergency nets using independent power supplies for priority message traffic passing. FEMA and the US Army MARS programs already have better solutions now than this future prospect is likely to yield anytime soon, and there will be better alternatives before such autonomous, self-directed flying robo-tech could ever become viable. This is gadget-think without consideration of all the related infrastructure relay and control tech that would be necessary for such combo-comm.

OK, I'll turn down the pragmatic cynicism rheostat now. 8^}

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