iPad-Controlled Quadricopter Surveys Tuscaloosa Storm Damage

Screencap from the Parrot AR Drone photo gallery.

The mainstream news is finally catching up on the robot takeover of the globe — and I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.

This past week CNN featured a video from the Parrot quadricopter as it’s flown by CNN reporter Aaron Brodie over tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Alabama, following last week’s storms. It’s pretty amazing footage, and surely it’s only sob sisters like me who worry about getting excited over new technology when so many of my fellow Americans have had their lives completely f*cked by mother nature. But for what it’s worth, the technology is amazing, not because of its absolute value but because of how easily available it is now.

Sold as a “flying video game,” the Parrot A.R. Drone utilizes an intuitive piloting system that makes it reportedly easy as pie to use. It doesn’t just run on Apple products, by the way; it also works with Android. The amazing thing is that it doesn’t just operate from the iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone — it operates from those platforms motion sensors:

The cockpit of the AR.Drone includes an inertial unit, ultrasound sensors and a vertical camera…The combination of these elements which are controlled by an autopilot program allows extremely accurate piloting of the quadricopter. The AR.Drone detects the movements of your iPod Touch┬«/iPhone┬« (to go up, down, turn, reverse, go forwards etc.). Anyone can pilot the AR.Drone, it is extremely simple to use.

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There’s even a slight flavor of open source about it:

You can also control the Parrot AR.Drone from a Linux PC and a joystick with the software AR.Drone Navigationdesigned for application developers and available for free.

The quadricopter runs about $300 and has two cameras — forward and down — but the CNN reporter added an additional high-definition camera, to the tune of about another $250.

Brodie cogently observed of the technology:

This is really at the low end of what’s possible…There’s much more sophisticated drone technology out there that is now available to really anybody, including us in the news media, and I think this is going to continue to provide a whole new perspective on things.

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You can check out the photo gallery at the Parrot A.R. Drone site here — and guess what? if you’ve become enamored of Parrot, you can even like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. See how easy it is to follow the galloping pace of technology?

Incidentally, one of the significant advantages of a quadricopter is that each individual set of rotors can be smaller, reducing the kinetic energy stored. That limits damage if you hit something with the rotors. The platform is also less expensive because maintaining stability with it doesn’t require the same mechanical coordination as a standard helicopter configuration.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become critical in high-tech military engagements — often with somewhat freaky results. Just last week, a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan was reported to have killed eight; drone attacks are being staged against reputed Al Qaeda figures in Yemen, and U.S. Predators armed with Hellfire missiles are an increasingly important part of U.S. military strategy.

But, of course, the technology’s simplicity is also vulnerability. As far back as 2009, insurgents in Iraq were even reported to have hacked U.S. drones, accessing the video feeds to get their own intel — and determine what U.S. forces could see — using $26 off-the-shelf software.

But UAVs have also become increasingly important in civilian applications, marking the confluence of cheap-and-easy video, wireless communications and increasingly affordable model airplane tech. Once you start talking about the application of drones to “semi-civilian” fields like law enforcement and fire abatement, and things get really interesting. And did someone mention border control? Devoted Techyum readers might remember when a Mexican border surveillance drone crashed in El Paso, which the Mexican government at first denied. An Australian archaeology team used a DIY paraglider drone to survey an ancient site in Thailand. And you might recall the incredible video from a drone flying around New York City.

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