This drone will try to keep its distance if you look annoyed by it

Plenty of people do not understand personal space but at least we can create robots that do. In fact, respect for space is one of the first things programmed into machines like autonomous cars and security bots that move freely around humans.

A team of researchers at The Georgia Institute of Technology is developing an autonomous drone blimp with sensors that help it fly around humans while maintaining an appropriate distance.

“The drone blimp is a perfect platform to move safely in the proximity of human,” Fumin Zhang, a Georgia Tech professor leading research on the blimp, told Digital Trends. “The speed of the blimp is on par with human movement, not too fast. The blimp flies 10 times longer than a quadcopter, which enables extended period of playtime with the human.”

Equipped with sensors and a small camera, the drone blimp is designed to detect hands so people can direct its movement with gestures. The camera also lets it identify facial expressions to determine whether a person is uncomfortable by its hovering about or intrigued by its presence.

“It detects and reacts to a human face to decide the best movement to respect human’s intent, for example, whether the human wants to play with the blimp, or simply wants to be left alone,” Zhang said.

The sensors aren’t perfect yet — the video below shows it float around a bit carelessly — but it is a step in the right direction for respectful robots.

The ultimate goal of the blimp is to study how people perceive and react to flying drones. However, future versions may find applications outside of the lab, taking the place of tour guides, store clerks, or coworkers.

“The blimp can serve as personal shopping aid in a supermarket or a personal guide in a museum,” Zhang said. “It can easily guide a group or a crowd by flying overhead for a long time. And the blimp can fly in hazardous indoor workspaces to watch over the shoulder of workers when they are performing risky tasks.”

Zhang and his team see real scientific value in their blimps but they would also like a bit of outside recognition, having recently submitted an application to the Guinness World Record for “the world’s smallest autonomous blimp.”