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Flying Robots to Help Control Traffic

Remote controlled pilotless vehicles also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs are commonly called drones.  We are told that the word ‘drone’ in the first instance denotes a male honeybee whose fixed role is apparently lazy and unadventurous and with no duties regarding the collection of pollen.  Applying the word to a hardworking, multi-tasking, bug-like flying robot may be an unsuitable extension of the meaning of the word, but we now seen this recent use become universally standardized.  See “The Flight of ‘Drone’ from Bees to Planes” by Ben Zimmer, July 26, 2013 in the WSJ.

 

Suffice to say here that the rapidity with which ‘drone’ capabilities and utility have developed may either upend the old connotation permanently or peel off the label altogether. And while this transformation is underway, with it should emerge an awareness of the enormous potential of drones for peaceful purposes as opposed to the current impression of drones as no more than combat and espionage machines.

 

Interest in the limitless uses of drones has resulted in some major expositions of the flying robot.  Hundreds of enthusiasts and robotics firms worldwide have been competing for some very handsome prizes for up to US$1 million as well as the attention of large aerospace corporations looking for the latest innovative technology.

 

The showcased areas in which the harmless potential could be applied include public health, agriculture, urban planning, logistics and the environment.  One recent award winner, the Swiss company Flyability created a rescue robot called the Gimball unique as the first “collision-tolerant drone” utilizing a rotating spherical outer cage.

 

Gimball, capable of rolling and bouncing across ceilings and floors, navigating tightly restricted areas and hostile environments such as burning buildings and radioactive sites, and of mapping its surroundings and transmitting RGB and infrared images, can cope with challenging environments without the need for fragile sensors.  The rotating cage ensures it doesn’t lose its stability and ensures that it can be used safely in close proximity with people.

 

These kinds of developments point clearly towards the many potential applications of drone technology in connection with road traffic systems.  Weather reporting, traffic volume measuring and reporting, traffic surveillance for rule enforcement purposes, search and rescue and improved emergency response, road maintenance and repair—all of these are areas in which the multipurpose capabilities of drones may offer a host of advantages.

 

When Amazon founder Mr. Bezos announced in December 2013 Amazon’s plan for drone delivery of lightweight commercial products, skeptics pointed out obstacles: the need for federal and state regulatory approval, public safety, reliability, individual privacy, operator training and certification, security (hacking), payload thievery, and logistical challenges.  In July 2014, however, Amazon drone prototypes could fly 50 miles per hour and carry 5-pound packages. And Amazon is not alone in this type of envisioning.

 

In China Alibaba, Asia’s largest internet company is currently testing drone delivery of small parcels and likewise Germany and the UAE are testing similar such programs.

 

 

We can expect that the application of drone technology to traffic management issues is not far away.

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