The latest personal tour guide to zoom around the MIT campus flies a few feet off the ground, uses GPS and responds to phone calls. Aptly named Skycall, the drone that functions as a hovering tour guide is the brainchild of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, which created the system to help students find their way on campus. It lets users summon it through a call, flies to where they are and leads them to their destination at an unhurried pace, while they trail along behind it.

The SENSEable City Lab team came up with Skycall as a solution to help students and visitors navigate what their site calls "one of mankind’s most difficult and disorientating labyrinths" – the MIT campus. The prototype system consists of a drone quadcopter, whose design at the moment is "quite raw" according to Christopher Green, a Research Fellow at the Lab. It's equipped with an onboard autopilot, camera, Wi-Fi, GPS navigation system and sensors that allow it to fly autonomously and determine its location.

When a person gets within range, which the team says "could reach a few miles," they can call up the quadcopter through a SkyCall app on their smartphone. Their GPS coordinates are instantly transmitted to the quadcopter, enabling it to fly to them whereupon it waits for further instructions. Once the user enters an alphanumeric code that corresponds to their destination, the drone starts flying at a sedate pace, hovering a few meters ahead of them.

The onboard Wi-Fi enables the user and the quadcopter to communicate with each other through the app. Users can pause the drone, get it to hover in place, and resume its services when needed. The drone in turn waits in place if it detects the user falling behind and asks them to close the distance. Acting as a personal tour guide, the quadcopter also describes landmarks along the way via the app.

While Skycall might seem a little gimmicky, it's part of the team's overarching goal to find different applications for drones. "Drones have so far had a lot of bad press and rightly so," Carlo Ratti, the lab's director tells Gizmag. "But in fact they can have extremely useful urban applications, especially if their control is put in the hands of people."

Creating drones that can operate in everyday environments and interact with people requires sorting out quite a few challenges. "From developing a stable flight platform to debugging communications there were many non-trivial hurdles," Green tells us. "Sometimes the autonomous UAV would make a break for freedom away from the GPS coordinates we had assigned it. There were many mysteries like this."

While the drone uses sonar sensors to help it avoid obstacles and stay away from walls, it does require user help in certain instances, such as opening a door. Solid solutions to problems like an object flying or colliding with the drone also have to be developed. "Work is ongoing to implement other vision/perception systems in the future, such as onboard LiDAR, in order to develop accurate indoor UAV perception and navigation systems," adds Green.

The team hopes to come up with novel ways in which drones "could be positively and poetically deployed in our cities." Skycall is only the first stage of the project; they hope to use drones as environmental sensors next. A plan to have the drones monitor algae blooms and air quality in the Charles River and relay that information in real time is in the works. "This platform of digitized information-gathering will allow us a deeper and broader understanding of our surrounding environments," says Green.

Taking the project a step further, they aim to create a "digital ecology of UAVs" that integrates seamlessly with natural ecological systems. They're figuring out ways to scale a drone-based environmental sensor platform into an easily deployable support framework for emergency services.

They're also working on an unique design for Expo 2015 that will explore the concept of biodiversity and digital insects within a large site containing man-made pavilions and other structures. "We're interested in utilizing UAVs to reconnect barren man-made landscapes with the natural biodiversity of the site's surroundings," Green tells Gizmag. "Hence the metaphor of digital insects performing analogous tasks to their natural counterparts – swarming over the Expo site to actually sense and identify potential locations and fertile soils, whereby they can actually pollinate and repopulate nature – planting seeds and even deploying real insects."

"This poetic possibility is a vehicle for speculating on how technology comes full circle to allow a man-made system to reconnect to the natural world," adds Yaniv Jacob Turgeman, the Research Head at the lab.

Check out a video of Skycall below.

Source: MIT via Dezeen