Embedded Technology is Pushing the Boundaries of Robotics and Drones

By Mike PecoraroNovember 24, 2017

The 2004 film 'I, Robot', based on the 1950 classic science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, projected the world in 2035, where robots with highly-intelligent, human-like brains are like everyday objects programmed to live alongside human beings.

Thanks to embedded technologies, we are already, coming close to beginning a new year, experiencing what Isaac Asimov envisioned in 1950.

With robotic sensors monitoring security provisions in warehouses, calculating global warming, and controlling the flow of highway traffic, we don’t need to wait until 2035 to witness anthropomorphic robots in public service jobs, commuting alongside us to work. 

One of the major robotic developments in recent times is the creation of drones, also known as UAVs, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These advanced systems, equipped with sensor technology, flight navigation and control, 4K cameras, and SATCOM communication capabilities, enable remote monitoring of large geographic areas. UAVs have positioned themselves as an important tool in various surveillance activities, both in the residential/commercial and defence applications.

Common use cases of the emerging technology are monitoring rivers for floods, crops for pests, snowfields for avalanches, volcanoes for eruptions, and forests for fires, as well as commercial uses like supervising warehouses and other infrastructure.

The use of UAVs and robotics in the context of defence applications are more complex. Deployments are mainly in critical areas such as robotically driven unmanned tanks, and applications like search and destroy missions with overhead UAVs to detect and intercept threats in advance.

The Technology Is Already Here

With human-like robots beginning to appear, robot and UAV designs have made significant strides over time. From pancake flipping robots to high-end robotic toys such as RoboSapiens and Aibo, there’s a lot of research going into improving the performance of robots and designing them to closely mimic human actions. Embedded systems are playing a key role in making this happen. In fact, the technology is already present in the sensors and CPUs of new-generation cell phones. Application designers are finding ways to tie the cell phone chips within a low power, embedded framework.

Today's mobile phone technology is playing a significant role in the development of robotics due to the performance enhancements it offers over traditional microcontrollers, plus the cost advantage. In fact, the comparatively low cost of mobile phone technology is a major driver for the development and deployment of disposable robots, at an unbelievably low cost. This enables the deployment of disposable UAVs in large autonomous ‘swarms’, with hundreds or thousands of units communicating over a wireless network in various environments like a battlefield, a firefighting situation, and even in the entertainment industry, like during the Superbowl 51 Halftime Show.

Metallica’s Fling with Micro-Drones Open Up New Possibilities

Recently, American heavy metal band, Metallica, opened their ongoing European WorldWired tour in Copenhagen’s sold-out Royal Arena before a good 15,000 ecstatic audience. Apart from the band’s signature stage artistries and stunts, the main highlight of this live concert was micro-drones. 

Immediately after the band started belting out hits like “Moth into Flame”, dozens of micro UAVs started emerging, creating a big rotating 'circle like' pattern above the stage. With the build-up of music, more and more micro-drones emerged and joined the formation, completing the pattern with three rotating, interlocking rings. The drones, flying above the performers and the audience, created enhanced effects like 3D sculptures and 360-degree viewpoints, offering the concert viewers a more immersive viewing experience.

In what marks the debut of world's first autonomous 'drone swarm' in an on-stage performance, we are also witnessing a new side of UAVs. Unlike other previous performances that deployed drones, this concert, in particular, is special because it featured micro-drones in an indoor live event setting.

Most embedded devices need location-based services for tracking and monitoring purposes. Due to this, localization is becoming increasingly important, especially in navigating drones autonomously. The location services, till now, have been typically provided by the GPS, or Global Positioning System. Although autonomous UAVs can make use of the GPS system for outdoor navigation, several studies have illustrated its inaccuracy in indoor environments.

This is primarily because of severe signal degradation due to tall building structures and other obstacles present in indoor settings. Degraded GPS signals often lead to unsafe and unreliable flying conditions for autonomous drones, which is driving the increased implementation of indoor localization technologies. As such, improving drone performance in indoor environments are likely to introduce the technology to many new application areas.  

Embedded Systems are Powering New Innovations in Drones and Robotic Applications

The smarter, more advanced, new generation UAVs use algorithms and deep learning to recognize and react to various environments around them. Today, robots and drones are increasingly being deployed in critical applications like monitoring hard-to-access power cables, streamlining warehouses, and providing crucial support in search and rescue operations in challenging terrains. Embedded systems are making this possible, infusing innovative and powerful capabilities in these autonomous machines, enabling them to perform a variety of complex tasks.

From kids’ toys to gathering intel on top secret missions, robotics and drones have the potential to become a larger part of our lives. And we didn’t need to wait until 2035 to get there.