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Saturday, May 02, 2009

Robot of the Day: Air Hogs Gyro X RC Helicopter

Maybe because of the frequent sightings of helicopters flying over our house, my three-year-old son developed this special interest in helicopters and always wanted a helicopter. And since my research is related to robotic airplanes, I also have a strong urge to own a robotic airplane myself. So when I found out about the Black Friday deal on the Air Hogs Gyro X RC Helicopter, I jumped on it, under the claim that the helicopter was really the birthday present for my son's three-year-old birthday!

The RC helicopter normally sells for $40, but I was able to get one at half price thanks to Black Friday sales at RadioShack. It is a remote-controlled toy airplane, so the kit included a controller that lets the user controls the throttle (to fly the helicopter up and down) together with an omnidirectional stick to control the flying directions. The controller also has a wheel on the side that allows you to trim the plane (adjusting the balance of the plane so it doesn't keep rotating in one direction). The controller also acts as a charger. Powered itself by four AA batteries, the controller has a wire to connect to the airplane for charging the battery on the airplane.

This RC toy can actually be categorized as a robotics device because it has built-in a "gyro" electronic stabilization system for smooth flight. The "gyro" sensor can sense the roll of the plane and then adjust the speed and direction of the small tail propeller to automatically stabilize the plane. What this means is that a beginner can easily focus on the throttle of the helicopter (controlling the altitude) and not worry about keeping the helicopter in an upright position. In a sense, the "auto-pilot" on the tiny plane can take over some of the responsibility for keeping the plane hovering in the same spot, which is extra nice because now even my three-old son can fly this thing around the house.

In robotics terminology, this type of function is called "Shared Control". For example, you can direct a ground mobile robot to go toward a certain direction, but the robot is capable of going around obstacles autonomously, so you don't have to worry about it. Although in the RC helicopter case, the stabilization autonomy falls pretty low in Tom Sheridan's Levels of Autonomy, it is a start. The robotic planes we use in our research also can stabilize themselves in the air in various wind conditions and maintain a constant speed. And once we load the terrain data into the control station, the UAVs can also maintain their height-above-ground. With GPS capabilities, the research UAVs can also follow way points.

The $20 Air Hog RC Helicopter of course is not that sophisticated. Besides, GPS works terribly in an indoor environment. However, it is totally possible that I could use some computer vision program to estimate the position of the plane and then send control signals from a computer instead of the RC controller. Then the little plane might display a slightly higher intelligence.

Another great thing about this helicopter is its durability. You can crash it left and right without worrying about damaging the device (which is a rare thing in robot world). The biggest downside is that the tiny battery in the plane only flies for about 5 minutes with a full charge --- frankly, a bit too short for me, especially when time seems to zoom by quickly when I have a great time flying this thing. Then it takes 20-30 minutes to charge. The upside about this is that it really teaches my kids that patience is a virtue.

Anyway, this RC helicopter is a great toy for beginner operators and kids. If you want to read a more detailed review of this RC Helicopter, click here.

Picture of the Day: Black Friday Fail! Only a programmer will get a kick out of this!