UAVs invade the toy store

Added on 20 August 2010 by Tim Robinson

After fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest frontier for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is the consumer toy market – with the launch of the Parrot AR Drone, a remote-controlled quadricopter controlled over Wi-Fi by an iPhone ‘app’.

Launched in the UK in June, but now available in the shops for £299, the AR Drone is billed as a ‘ flying video game’ – designed to get kids out into the fresh air with a flying toy, while still giving them a video screen to look at.

The AR Drone uses electric motors to power four propellers and features two cameras (one forward facing and one downward facing to measure speed).  It uses ultrasound sensors for altitude control as well as a MEMS (Microelectromechanical systems) accelerometer.

The downward facing camera uses algorithms to judge the speed and the Drone is self-stabilised with an autopilot to handle the most traditional difficult part of the flight – take-off and landing. Should you remove your fingers from the controls - it will automatically go into a self-stabilised hover.

Performance wise, it can gives 12mins endurance on its batteries and the WiFi has a approximately maximum range of 50m.  It also features lights that help gauge the direction of the AR Drone is pointing as well as a foam ‘bumper’ that protects the rotors against any damage when flying indoors.

The images from the forward camera are transmitted back via Wi-Fi to the iPhone to allow an operator to intuitively steer and control it, by tilting the phone – making flying it literally child’s play - as well as turning it into a mini spy-UAV for sneaking up on the neighbours cat.

The AR DRone also incorporates new technology – ‘augmented reality’ – projecting ‘virtual’ enemies, obstacles or a racetrack even onto the iPhone display, for the player/pilot to avoid or shoot down. Two AR Drones, linked together using Wi-Fi, can therefore engage in dogfights, races or airborne hide-and-seek.

Though model aeroplanes (and rotorcraft) have long been a children’s (and adults) toy and hobby, the AR Drone shows how sophisticated UAV technology is now breaking through into the consumer sector – and in fact may be leading it.

While this (relatively) expensive toy shows how UAVs are now invading the home, military UAVs are also incorporating gaming technology. Lockheed Martin’s Desert Hawk III UAV in service with the British Army, for example, uses an Xbox-style controller. Meanwhile Raytheon has designed the Universal Control System (UCS) an UAV controllers station (below), that incorporates design features from high-end video gaming set-ups (see Aerospace International – ‘Embracing the Xbox Generation’, September 2009).

Even the iPhone has gone to war – an ‘app’ allows snipers to calculate range and trajectory windage for long-range shots. The iPad too, has been used in artillery training in the British Army.

And, along with the AR Drone flying toy, researchers are now looking at the possibilities of using iPhones to control multiple UAVs, with experiments conducted by the Center for Collaborative Control of Unmanned Vehicles at the University of Berkeley, California.

There is, then, a continuing and increasing cross-over between consumer/entertainment technology and military applications. Ten years ago, the concept of a Wi-Fi controlled, self-stabilised UAV with live video feed and touch-sensitive controls would have been a CIA gadget – now it’s in the toy store.

And though a toy – this innovative control method may be copied in military UAVs – with the soldier of the future pulling out a iPhone/iPadstyle device and using the touch screen to intuitively ‘fly’ the UAV to get the information he/she needs, conduct battle damage assessment, or even call in air support.

Also should the AR Drone really take-off as a ‘flying toy’ and these consumer/gaming UAVs proliferate widely (especially for multiplayer flying) the image of UAVs as threatening spy drones as often portrayed in the media may soften – paving the way for increased civil acceptance. It may only be toy – but the AR Drone could play a larger role in the cultural acceptance of UAVs.

Finally – model aircraft have in the past inspired aircraft designers, aviation pioneers, pilots and astronauts to realise their dreams of flight. Could this 21st century ‘toy’ switch on a new generation of young people to enter the amazing world of aerospace and reach for the skies?

from the Royal Aeronautical Society

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6 Responses to “UAVs invade the toy store”

  1. alan harrison says:

    Has anyone purchased one ?

    If so what sgs the verdict ?

  2. Tim R says:

    Interesting review here on DIY Drones blog

    - verdict not so good outdoors in wind - but definitely not bad for £299. The nearest ‘professional’ UAV quadricopter (as used by Merseyside police) goes for around £15K I think.

  3. Mat says:

    I got one, and it’s amazing, I love my drone.

  4. Tim R says:

    Its actually more powerful than you might think. Heres a vid of someone who attached a mini HD cam to an AR Drone and went flying outside.

    Pretty impressive picture quality!

  5. John R says:

    I work at Brookstone, I fly it everyday multiple times and I love it. the controls are fairly simple starting out and you can raise the settings of tilt structure and varied speeds

  6. Dick Clements says:

    Hmmm… Yes, fly it inside your own home, fly it in the park, but the video (rather irresponsibly in my view) suggests it’s fun to fly it down the high street. So who’s responsible when one of these things alarms/distracts a driver and a collision with another car or a pedestrian results?

    I’m perfectly happy to see the military using UAVs, even the police or National Grid and other utility companies, but the neighbour’s kids or the local yobs - no thanks.

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