Nov. 30, 2012 at 2:38 PM ET
Paul Wallich, like any loving dad, dutifully walks his grade-schooler son to the bus stop each morning. He does find the quarter-mile hike to be a drag, occasionally. His solution? He built a camera-equipped drone that helps him fulfill his parental obligation.
It's those Vermont winters that provided motivation for the project. "If I am walking my kid to the bus stop in December and January, I would really rather not be doing that," Wallich told NBC News.
The drone is a quadcopter that he built from store-bought parts. He strapped on a smartphone with a video-chat app so that he could watch his son from the comfort of his warm home.
The trick was to get the drone to follow his son. After exploring a few possibilities, Wallich put a GPS beacon in his son’s backpack, and employed navigation software that tells the drone to stay an arbitrary distance from the beacon.
It worked ... up to a point.
"Vermont, as it turns out, is a really bad place for doing this kind of thing because you have hills and you have trees," Wallich said. "Hills mean that the altitude control gets a lot more complicated and trees mean you have to do obstacle avoidance.
"If my kid is walking along the road and there is a branch overhanging the road, the quadcopter will gleefully run smack into it."
There are potential fixes, such as sonar for collision control. By flying the quadcopter closer to his son — about 15 feet off the ground — he could program it to maintain altitude with respect to the ground instead of following GPS coordinates.
"But with the current state of the technology, unless I really changed the design a lot, I would not want it within 15 feet of my kid," he told NBC News. Some people refer to this kind of unmanned craft as a "flying lawnmower," and with good reason.
Another glitch is battery life. Today’s lithium ion batteries are good for about one round-trip to the bus stop. But within a few years, drones should be lighter with longer-lasting batteries, making the use of drones to follow our kids to the bus or school a real possibility.
That is, if the kids will let us.
Wallich said his son thinks the robot is cool and loves the fact that nobody else’s dad at school builds robot drones. "But the actual idea that this thing would be following him around for real, rather than for fun? I don’t think would actually go over terribly well," he noted. Good call, Paul.
To learn more about the technical side of Wallich's babysitting quadcopter, check out Wallich’s article in the engineering magazine IEEE Spectrum, where he is a contributing editor.
— via Gizmodo