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This Autonomous Drone Thinks With Your Smartphone

This self-flying drone uses your phone as a brain—but is it worth risking your phone every time you want to take to the skies?

This Autonomous Drone Thinks With Your Smartphone

AR Drone 2.0 Parrot

Many drones, including the best-selling AR Drone 2.0 Parrot, let you control the drone with your smartphone. A new drone has emerged that actually thinks with your smartphone—as in, you strap your phone into it and the drone becomes autonomous. While this seems like a great idea considering the ubiquity of smartphones, it assumes that you’ve got a powerful enough phone—if you have one at all. Is this a feasible model?

The project, named SmartCopter, is the product of Vienna University of Technology effort to find a cheaper autonomous aerial vehicle that could help survey disaster zones. Instead of inside-inaccurate GPS, SmartCopter uses the smartphone’s accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer to determine the copter’s position, which is fed to an Arduino microcontroller that moderates the rotors. In the video below, the team put a downward camera on the copter and let it "read" different paper squares to demonstrate its recognition ability—recognition for search-and-rescue surveillance or location mapping.

Even without the cost of the phone, however, the SmartCopter cost about €300/$412 to build, putting it well above the $299 price tag for the AR Drone 2.0 Parrot, which also comes with two cameras and easily synced smartphone software. Obviously it’s unfair to compare an experimental model with a production line that’s sold an estimated 250,000 units, but unless future SmartCopter users happen to have a sufficiently powerful phone, they’ll have to pony up—and the three-year-old Samsung Galaxy S II the team used still retails for$250 online. Even in bulk, it costs about $155 per unit, though bulk rates can differ.

While production would definitely drive down the price, it wouldn’t cancel the cost of buying a new phone should the user not have a sufficiently powerful phone. This could be offset by modular phones like PhoneBloks for upgrades or different configurations where the expense is incremental. No matter the model, you still risk losing the phone if your drone goes down. Even a bad tumble could crack the screen and let environmental crap in.

Whether it’s financially feasible to slave drones to personal phones will depend on how low the price will go—but the advantages of such a system are worth mentioning. Software upgrade? Just download it to your phone. With a great API, programmers could cobble together specific software packages for drone functions. For example, if you’re going camping, you could download a Map & Scout subroutine for your drone to get the lay of the land.

The team from Vienna University of Technology are pioneering in the right direction, and their publication on the SmartCopter (available for free online) won Best Paper at the 11th International Conference on Advances in Mobile Computing and Multimedia (MoMM 2013). Autonomous drones are not even close to the public’s radar and development to use existing tech accessible to the public will shorten that gap. Unless it’s affordable, however, this tech might stay out of the public’s hands—especially if it endangers their precious, precious digital lifelines.