Back when I started writing about robots (get off my lawn, by the way), helicopters were big and complicated and dangerous and crashy. It's kind of amazing that now (or at least, soon, hopefully) you can get a tiny little quadrotor that can stabilize itself in flight for just under $100. Or, to put it another way, for just under $10,000, you could get a hundred of 'em.
Here's the Kickstarter pitch for the Mimix Tilt-to-Fly controller and NanoQ copter:
The NanoQ weighs just 35 grams, and it can fly for up to 10 minutes on an integrated rechargeable battery. It can carry 10 grams of payload, and self-stabilizes with a 3-axis gyro and accelerometer. Infrared transmitters and receivers let the NanoQs interact with each other for multiplayer aerial gaming. Through Kickstarter, a complete NanoQ system (with the quadrotor, controller, charger, and two batteries) is just $99.
That all certainly sounds like fun, but here's why we really like this project:
The NanoQ uses an open communications protocol. Connect your computer up to the Mimix through the USB port or optional USB RF dongle and you will be able to communicate wirelessly with the NanoQ to:
- Tweak the control parameters
- Update the NanoQ firmware
- Send control commands directly from a laptop
- Send customized signals out of the IR transmitter
- Receive craft telemetry such as attitude, control commands, and even raw sensor data
- You can even connect your own electronics payload, like an Arduino, camera, or homebrewed project to the auxiliary serial (UART + power) port on the NanoQ.
So not only is there built-in computer control, but since the quadrotors can also talk to each other via infrared, there's some exciting potential there for, you know, interactive swarm stuff. And you can get a swarm for cheap; I'm not sure how much exactly if you were just interested in some hardware for research and not gaming, but even at a hundred bucks a pop, you could get three of these little guys (which counts as a swarm in our book) for the price of just one AR Drone.
For a sense of what you might be able to do with a swarm of tiny quadrotors, check out what UPenn has been up to with theirs, and what MIT has been fantasizing about for years now. Localization is still an issue, of course, but part of the way that problems like this get solved is if you make it a problem for LOTS of clever people all at once using cheap and accessible hardware.
QFO Labs has eight days left to make, uh, $180k on their Kickstarter, which means they're going to need some sort of major push that even IEEE Spectrum may not have enough clout to provide. So tell your friends, tell your neighbors, and tell your lab to buy a couple dozen of these things just to see what might be possible.