Airborne Commuters: EU Project Sees Flying Cars in Europe’s Skies
An EU-funded project is developing technology that could make flying cars a reality. But to avoid the inevitable dangers of a crowded sky, researchers are borrowing lessons learned from robots and bats.
It’s a special kind of dressage: When Raffaello D’Andrea lifts his right arm, a plate-sized helicopter obediently starts its engine. When he moves his finger through the air, the device follows as if on a horse’s lead.
D’Andrea is a drone trainer. The professor is standing in socks with his legs apart on the floor of a gymnasium-like building at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. The floor is covered with mats to soften the impact when the expensive devices crash to the ground. And lest any errant drones escape from the “Flying Machine Arena” in the Mechanical Engineering Department, the 10-by-10-meter (1,075-square-foot) interior space is also surrounded by a net.
Curious students are gathered outside a glass viewing panel. They can hardly believe their eyes when they behold flying robots reacting to hand signs like trained falcons.
“This is actually the easiest exercise,” says D’Andrea, one of the directors of the ETH’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control (IDSC). He raises his left hand, and the helicopter does a somersault, then another and another, until D’Andrea lowers his hand again. He claps, and the drone promptly lands.
At first sight, the way D’Andrea controls the device with gestures might seem like magic. But the researcher is aiming for something quite different than magic: He wants to build flying robots that are so ordinary and simple that anyone can control them. “Today’s cars are my ideal,” he says. “They are nearly perfect; all you have to do is put gas in them and change the oil from time to time.”
But even as he watches his flying robots, D’Andrea’s thoughts are already elsewhere: in a car flying above the clouds. To bring this dream closer to reality, he wants to teach his drones to do what their pilots want while at the same time avoiding all the beginners’ mistakes that come with navigating in three dimensions.
The apparent magic of D’Andrea’s gesture-controlled devices is based on a simple trick: The Kinect motion sensor of a conventional game console is on the ground observing the trainer. A computer translates his gestures into control commands and transmits them via wireless network to the flying drone, while eight ceiling-mounted cameras monitor its position. The individual components are readily available in any electronics store, but the way they interact are reminiscent of the magical Quidditch games in the “Harry Potter” films.