Covered in extensive detail on the IEEE Spectrum magazine site, a father names Paul Wallich in Vermont decided to build a camera-equipped quadcopter to follow his son from home to the school bus stop. He specifically wanted to build the security device for extremely cold mornings in December and January in order to avoid the quarter-mile walk to and from the bus stop. To get started, he first purchased a basic quadcopter kit and was quickly able to get up in the air due to the simple construction. He also designed a few sets of replacement legs out of foam board to cushion landings.
Rather than develop a custom video solution, Wallich attached an old smartphone to the quadcopter and turned on a video chat application in order to send a video feed back to his computer at home. That particular model of quadcopter could lift several pounds, so the addition of the smartphone wasn’t significant in regards to the effect of the added weight on maneuverability.
While the software controlling the quadcopter can be programmed to travel a specific set of coordinates, Wallich needed to come up with a solution that would work with the varied path his son took each day on the way to the school bus stop. In order to accomplish this, he created a small GPS beacon powered by a coin-cell battery that lasts up to a week. This beacon was placed within his son’s backpack and the quadcopter was programmed to stay a specific distance from the beacon.
According to Wallich, he ran into issues with wind as well as obstacles in the path such as branches on trees. In an interview with NBC News, Wallich stated “Vermont, as it turns out, is a really bad place for doing this kind of thing because you have hills and you have trees. Hills mean that the altitude control gets a lot more complicated and trees mean you have to do obstacle avoidance. If my kid is walking along the road and there is a branch overhanging the road, the quadcopter will gleefully run smack into it.”
He’s looking into adding more sonar units on the quadcopter in order to assist with collision avoidance as well as a new sensor to provide more accurate positioning while in the air. Wallich also discovered that the lithium-ion battery life powering the quadcopter was limited at best. He had enough time to fly to the bus stop, hover for a few minutes and fly back to the house before the battery would go completely dead. In addition, power requirements doubled when the quadcopter was in motion or attempting to fly against a stiff breeze. Adding extra batteries to the quadcopter to increase power also increased the weight, thus it wasn’t significantly helpful.
Regarding the safety of the device, Wallich stated “With the current state of the technology, unless I really changed the design a lot, I would not want it within 15 feet of my kid.” However, Wallich indicated that his son liked the automated robot drone.