CeBIT 2016: The Aerotain Skye Could Be Your Friendly Floating Camera Drone

ETH Zurich spin-off Aerotain has created the most agile balloon you’ve ever seen

2 min read
A glowing floating balloon patterned to look like an eyeball hovers in the evening sky outdoors.
Photo: Aerotain

Editors Note: This week IEEE Spectrum is covering CeBIT, the enormous information and communications technology show that takes place annually in Hanover, Germany. For up-to-the-second updates, you can follow our CeBIT Ninja, Stephen Cass, on Twitter (@stephencass), or catch daily highlights throughout the week here. 

Once upon a time there was a very odd British television show called The Prisoner, which featured a secret agent repeatedly attempting to escape from a mysterious village. One of the biggest threats the agent faced was a giant balloon called Rover, which would pursue and subdue rule-breaking villagers. Now Rover has been brought to reality, albeit in a much more adorable version, thanks to the engineers at Aerotain and their Skye inflatable drone.

The Skye is a 3-meter-diameter controllable balloon that’s filled with helium for buoyancy. Dotted around the surface are propellers whose direction can be adjusted, spinning the balloon or moving it around as required. There’s also the option to add an internal projector to display moving images on the balloon’s skin. Skye has been used at events as a crowd-pleaser, but it can also be used a platform for aerial photography by adding cameras.

Aerotain was established in September 2015 as Skye grew out of the founders’ work on a masters degree project at ETH Zurich. Aerotain were showing off a—sadly firmly tethered—Skye at CeBIT and I spoke to Andreas Schaffner, one of the company’s founders about the drone and the company’s plans for its future. At the moment Skye is offered as part of a complete service: “We’ll design and manufacture the hull—it doesn’t have to be a sphere, it can be anything—then we’ll come to the event and fly the thing,” says Schaffner.

In large part this full-service approach comes from the fact that Skye is currently too tricky to fly by anyone but a trained operator. But Schaffner says that they are working on an much more autonomous version that can be operated independently by customers. This will likely use ultra-wide-band radio beacons to locate each Skye in three-dimensional space, and the price point is expected to be somewhere in the tens of thousand of U.S. dollars.

With fully charged batteries, the Skye can fly for two to three hours, and can work both outdoors and indoors.  The height it can reach outdoors is largely limited by winds, so it typically stays within a maximum ceiling of 20 to 30 meters. The Skye can spin rapidly, making it suitable as platform for covering, say, racing events that follow a track. When moving from one place to another it has a top speed of about 15 to 20 kilometers per hour, but Schaffner says they are working to increase that in the next version as well. Hopefully it won’t get too fast: Rover was pretty scary after all. 

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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