Researchers just developed a novel system to control "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs) in critical scenarios — using an augmented reality (AR) interface enabling users to control UAVs with a head-mounted display, according to a study shared on a preprint server.
However, while helping firefighters control dangerous situations is an obvious pro, the ethical implications of multiplying police or military power with AR-controlled drone swarms are less clear.
A 'hands-free' AR control system for UAV swarms
Computer scientists and roboticists have brought a wide scope of new tools to extend human agency amid critical missions — like military operations or search and rescue efforts. In these cases, UAVs have become extremely appealing because they can make entry into remote or dangerous areas where humans might not survive. By adding a more intuitive, head-mounted visual interface for UAV controllers, the researchers at Polytechnique Montréal are minimizing the experiential gap between machines and humans, adding more control over an environment without posing a risk to the physical safety of the users.
"Our study was born from a partnership between the industrial company Humanitas Solutions Inc. and the research laboratory of computer graphics and virtual reality (LIRV) of Polytechnique Montréal directed by Professor Benoit Ozell," said Co-Author Dany Naser Addin of the recent study, in a TechXplore report. "I was a student in a research master and this paper is a result from my studies in the past two years."
The main goal of this study — carried out by Naser Addin and his advisor Ozell was to evaluate the potential of several technologies like AR in providing humans with more control in a critical environment. The researchers collaborated with people who periodically interview Montréal firefighters (a group called Service incendie de Montréal, or SIM) — to better grasp how new technology can best help them do their job.
"The goal of our study was to support the work of these firefighters in Montréal by managing a swarm of multiple drones using a single AR headset during a fire-related emergency," said Naser Addin, in the TechXplore report. "To do this, we designed an AR interface, using the Magic Leap 1 headset, which can be used to manage a swarm of UAVs in a stressful situation."
"Our goal was to evaluate if AR could be an important tool for the future of critical situations," added Naser Addin. Notably, this novel AR system of control is completely hands-free, which allows users to focus on their vision, instead of manipulating their interaction with hands.
Vast potential for AR-controlled UAV swarms
"Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic situation, the test and deployment of our application with firefighters were postponed, so we were forced to adapt our experiments to the current situation," said Naser Addin. "Once the pandemic is over, we intend to conduct some tests with firefighters. Of course, we will also continue to research and develop similar applications of AR technology in various fields of applications such as healthcare, surgery, airplane virtual cockpits, and other collaboration environments."
However, it's easier to imagine clear-cut advantages for firefighters using AR-assisted UAV drones, than it is for the military or police forces with AR. Imagine a massive street protest contained in minutes with the help of a robotic swarm of UAVs controlled remotely by police or military officers sitting comfortably far away from the action on the ground. Likewise, in a warzone, the technology could offer substantial advantages to military officers participating in a dangerous operation without risking their life (or trained expertise).
The potential applications for AR-controlled UAVs in critical scenarios are vast. From averting deaths during natural disasters to containing an early forest fire to police and military activity — UAV swarms will drastically reduce the risks posed to users. But whether these technologies will be used ethically in every field remains up for grabs.