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The Future of Personal Drone Navigation Is Here

For the particularly cartographically challenged.

Technology is forever trying to stay one step ahead of the spatially challenged, those people who never know exactly where they are on a street grid or how to get where they're going. Have no internal compass? There are maps for that. Befuddled by maps? There are smart phones. Still don't know which way to point your Android? Now, there are drones.

Meet Skycall, an "autonomous flying quadcopter and personal tour guide" from the MIT Senseable City Lab. Researchers there are trying to test the potential of drones to sense and perceive complex environments, as well as their ability to communicate about that environment with humans on the ground via, say, your cell phone. Those two capabilities will be key to the capacity of unmaned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to do all kinds of things: identify infrastructure problems, survey storm damage, calculate the world's first indisputably accurate crowd counts (I'm just daydreaming here; you should feel free to join me in the comments section).

Here, though, Skycall is starting with something much simpler (but no less impressive): It's navigating a kid through his college campus.

The lab developed both the quadcopter and accompanying app. You tell the app where you want to go, and it identifies both your location and the nearest UAV. The little guy then shows up to take you to your destination (possibly while delivering tour-guide factoids along the way).

You may be thinking that the Google Maps app on your smart phone already does something remarkably similar to this (minus the charming narrative). But bear in mind that this is a proof of concept, not a market-ready product in itself. The lab does point out, though, that lost souls using Skycall have the benefit of actually looking at the world around them while they travel, rather than looking down at the their phones.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.