Behind the Music: How "Robot Drone Man" Built His Flying Avatar

Robot Drone Man
Image: Ilhan Bae/KAIST

The most entertaining video we posted on Video Friday a couple weeks ago was almost certainly Robot Drone Man, a parody of this PPAP (Pen Pineapple Apple Pen) video, which for some reason has 150 million views on YouTube. Parody or not, Robot Drone Man actually exists, and it’s a project of Ilhan Bae, a researcher and futurist at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), who wrote in to tell us about it.

Robot Drone Man is an avatar drone, in the same category as other mobile telepresence robots like Double and Beam. It allows a remote human to have an embodied physical presence through a mobile robot, although in this case, the robot can fly, since most of it is a DJI S1000 octocopter. On top of the octocopter is a Kubi telepresence robot to take care of the actual telepresence bit. With a height of 1.4 meters (landed), it’s designed to match the eye level of people interacting with it, and the remote operator can “gesticulate with two hands and head as if a distant operator exists in person,” says Bae, adding that this is “the first trial to couple a telepresence robot in an upright position and drone platform into one body.” He explains that “it may look impractical to install heavy robot parts on a light drone, but the benefits of telepresence via a flying drone overwhelm the restricted mobility of telepresence robots strolling indoors.” In other words, Robot Drone Man FLY!

Here’s our full interview with Bae, who next year will have his own lab at KAIST’s Graduate School of Future Strategy.

IEEE Spectrum: Your PPAP parody video is pretty funny; is this drone a serious research project? 

Ilhan Bae: Developing the avatar drone is a serious research project to explore a new application of drones as the extensions of humans. Most users of drone technology basically focus on transportation and surveillance, such as pizza delivery and aerial filming.

As a futurist, I forecast that drone technology will soon evolve to become another body for humans, and I wanted to demonstrate this potential application of drones through a funny video that shows man, robot, and drone “serially converging” to be a flying avatar.

Can you describe the capabilities of the system?

The avatar drone is a convergence of a life-size telepresence robot and a drone platform, which gives a distant operator a virtual flight to a meeting location. Once landed, the drone automatically stands in an upright position to match eye level of local users. While most wheeled telepresence robots are restricted to indoor use, the avatar drone can theoretically fly fast almost anywhere outdoors to project the presence of its operator within a radius of few miles.

What kind of design and engineering were required to get it to work? What kind of problems did you have to solve? 

Designing anthropomorphic drones requires a compromise between contradicting requirements, in particular the flight stability of the drone platform and the balance of a tall and heavy robot body. Humans stand upright, which is an important element for anthropomorphism of robots, but installing a life-size robot body that stands upright on the drone causes critical issues with weight and balance during flight.

I solved the challenge of flight safety and upright position by designing a robot body that is automatically lowered by gravity. In that way the avatar drone, even with life-size height, can achieve enough stability in both landing and flight modes.

Robot Drone Man
Image: Ilhan Bae/KAIST

Why did you decide to make this drone, and what do you hope it will be able to do? 

The application of drone technology as a life-size telepresence platform has received meager attention from robotics and drone business. Avatar drones are especially useful for people who need to meet or manage other people face to face in remote locations. For instance, when the presence of police officers is urgently required in isolated places, or when elderly people with physical disabilities want to project social presence outdoors. Anybody can be Peter Pan. Avatar drone proves it.

What are you working on now, and what are your plans for the future? 

My passion is not only to technically realize flyable bodies, but also to officially recognize them as legal extension of humanity. That is why I do research on human-drone interaction in terms of politics and laws: To what extent can the distant drone operator be treated a person, how will people accept robotic avatars, and will they deserve some basic rights? I believe that avatar drones will give people the freedom of 3D mobility outdoors. Then, our concept of drones will change to be more than flying delivery platforms.

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