Fotokite Pro Featured in WIRED
If you want to put an eye out, by all means, fly a quadcopter indoors. Shred the houseplants and ruin the linens. Give the dog a complex.
Really, it’s a shame that drones don’t work so hot indoors. After all, they’d be immensely useful for, say, decommissioning chemical and energy plants by providing a view of overhead pipes and such that terrestrial rovers can’t reach. Rescue roboticist Robin Murphy of Texas A&M may have solved this problem—with marsupials.
Well, ones made of metal and plastic, to be clear. These are the so-called marsupial robots: A drone as the baby tethered safely to the mother robot, in this case the military-grade PackBot tracked vehicle. (Yes, the marsupial metaphor is perhaps a bit stiff, but better than “umbilical robots.”) “The nice thing about the tethered UAVs is that people in the chemical and nuclear industry don’t freak the minute you say you’re going to fly a UAV indoors,” says Murphy.
You can forgive their reaction. After all, pretty much everything in a decommissioned plant can explode. Also, the visibility sucks, the place teems with obstacles, and you can at any moment lose your connection to the drone, sending it crashing into … something you don’t want it crashing into. Scream around with a UAV and you’re asking for disaster. Literally.
Tether it to a tracked vehicle, though, and you’ve got yourself a safer way of navigating dangerous environments. Fotokite is made for this sort of thing, autonomously sticking to one place like, well, a kite—only not super boring. “It’s patented algorithms that we have that make a drone estimate its position and localize itself based off of tension from a tether, not based on things like GPS or optical sensors or things like that,” says Fotokite CEO Chris McCall.
The mother robot provides stability, and power, too. Tapping into its mother’s battery lets the UAV stay airborne far longer than your typical quadcopter. What’s more, the tracked vehicle can handle the heavy lift of processing. For instance, it might carry a bulky lidar unit to map the environment with lasers.
And so mother and child can work together to better explore perilous indoor environments. Kinda sounds like a Michael Bay movie but without all the explosions.
Matt Simon / WIRED