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Is that a Bat or a Bot?

Look out your window and see a strange-looking creature flying by the elm tree in your front yard. A crow, or maybe a bat? No. Actually, it’s a Parrot… but nothing like the colorful bird sitting in the gilded cage in your grandmother’s front room. This Parrot is a drone — a smaller version of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the MQ-1 Predator or the newer Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle used by the military. And the Parrot AR.Drone is a commercial product. It’s controlled by an iPhone or iPod Touch and available to general consumers. Check out this video:

Essentially a tiny quadrotor helicopter with WiFi and two cameras, the Parrot AR.Drone uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to detect hand motion. The AR.Drone front camera streams live video to the iPhone to create an augmented reality environment. Lean the iPhone forward to move forward or sidewise to corner or change direction. Designed as a cool augmented reality gaming platform, it clearly has an ominous surveillance edge — not unlike the Flying Eye in Harry Harrison’s SF novel The Repairman, or the Aerostat Monitor in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. I wouldn’t want an unidentified AR.Drone with its cameras flying by my front window.

On the positive side — like Steve Mann’s SenseCam, the AR.Drone offers the capability to augment the capture of day-to-day activity on video. Rather than surveillance, this is sousveillance: the general activity of an individual capturing a first-person recording of an activity from his or her own perspective as a participant in the activity (see “Sousveillance: Wearable Computing and Citizen ‘Undersight’” in Resources).

As an augmented reality (AR) game platform, the AR.Drone looks awesome. Its AR features include the ability to detect another AR.Drone in flight and to detect positioning markers on the ground. Some of the initial games provided with the AR.Drone include solo games such as “Robot” (fight a gigantic robot with an almost impenetrable hull) and “Drone War” (pilot against virtual drones) as well as multiplayer duels using virtual cannons and missiles to shoot down opponents. Here’s a video showing an AR view from an iPhone screen of an AR.Drone with its indoor protective hull:

The AR.Drone is built with an embedded computer system using a 468 MHz ARM9 chip, 128 MB of DDR RAM, WiFi, and a Linux operating system. Its inertial guidance system includes a 3-axis accelerometer, a 2-axis gyroscope, and a 1-axis yaw precision gyroscope. Somewhat like a bat, it uses an ultrasound altimeter with a range of 18 feet. Built with a carbon tube structure, the high efficiency propellers give it a speed of roughly 11 miles per hour. Powered by a lithium-ion polymer battery, it can stay in the air for about 15 minutes.

The Parrot AR.Drone is clearly a toy — but a toy that has the potential to train a new generation of drone pilots.

Parrot — a company based in Paris, France — is a global leader in wireless devices for mobile phones and is listed in the Paris stock market under the symbol PARRO. The company was founded in 1994 by Henri Seydoux to take advantage of the breakthrough of mobile phones into everyday life by creating high-quality, user-friendly wireless devices.

Parrot provides an open API (Application Programming Interface) for the AR.Drone to game developers. Building a game environment such as early 20th Century France and augmenting the AR.Drone to appear as a World War I biplane — or creating Klingon Warbirds attacking Federation Starships — could become a lucrative pastime for an iPhone app developer.

Parrot A.R. Drone. Photo credit: ardrone.parrot.comThe Parrot AR.Drone is clearly a toy, but a toy that has the potential to train a new generation of drone pilots. Real drones such as the RQ-1 Predator (“R” for reconnaissance and “Q” for unmanned aircraft system) are the primary UAVs currently used for offensive operations in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas. Predators with sensors are flown remotely with game-station-like radio controllers from ground control stations. They are deployed as a “system” in fours using satellite links. Predators have a wing span of 49 feet and weigh around 2,000 pounds. The tiny Parrot AR.Drone is a mere 17×11 inches and weighs a miniscule 14 ounces.

The Parrot is way cool technology and an innovative use of the iPhone — and it certainly looks like a lot of fun from the demonstration videos. Does it have the potential for surveillance abuse? It might irritate the neighbors, but it’s probably not much of an aerial spy. But I’m not sure I’d want to see the police get a hold of its next generation….

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