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AstroDrone app to help scientists probe space

We all want a drone, but what are they good for? Well, the European Space Agency says their new augmented – or adapted – reality app will help robot research for space travel.

It's part-game, part-scientific experiment: a free app released by the European Space Agency (ESA) lets users transform an iPhone-controlled "home drone" into their very own spacemobile. The AstroDrone app helps ESA's Advanced Concepts Team collect data for teaching robots to navigate environments, while owners of the Parrot AR.Drone can try their hand at docking at a simulated International Space Station.

European Space Agency researcher Guido de Croon tells us about the new technology.

DW: What's this technology composed of?

Guido de Croon: The drone has many sensors on board, just two cameras, one to the front, and one to the bottom. It has sonar, it has acceleromters. So what can it do is that, in principle, it can fly itself. If you press "take off," it will indeed just take off and just hover. And it's actually meant for playing augmented reality games. So you look at your iPhone, you see through the camera of the drone, so it's as if you're sitting in the drone. But you can also project things in there that do not actually exist in reality.

In our case, we project virtual worlds in which you see the International Space Station.

Guido de Croon demonstrates AstroDrone (Copyright: ESA/Anneke Le Floc'h)

Guido de Croon demonstrates AstroDrone, which he hopes will help improve how robots see distances

And through this game, you want to collect data?

The goal of the game itself is to dock to the International Space Station, as astronauts have to do as well. But, the goal of the project is scientific. So, if people play the game, we hope they have fun and we hope they get in a touch a bit with space and space exploration. But, we also hope they help with our experiment, which they can do by going to the high-score table and saying "yes" to participating. In that case, data is extracted from the images that the drone made on board so that we can improve the way robots see distances.

What exact data are we talking about?

First of all, we're not interested in the raw images, so we don't send raw images. We also don't send compressed images, or something like that, because our goal is not reconstruction. What we do send is visually salient points that are extracted from the image and these cannot be viewed by humans. We can do very little with it, but robots can use it to see distances, so they can use it to recognize objects.

That would be your aim in the future, wouldn't it? To be able to teach robots to basically work better on space missions?

Exactly. In many space missions, the robots would be so far from a human operator, that they have to work autonomously, and this app, what we try to do is make the robot learns stuff about its environment. So if you take a human, for example, we see distances in many ways. One is stereovison: you have two eyes. And with your two eyes, you can determine distances to objects, but another one is that we also recognize objects. So we recognize that something is a face, and if a face is a certain size on our retina, then we immediately know how far this face is away. And we learn that from experience. And that's the idea behind this app - that we have a lot of robots flying around in the world, in very different environments and they start learning the size of different objects by themselves, so that when we send robots later on to a planet or a moon, that in the beginning, they perhaps only use things like stereovision, for which you do not have to know the environment you're in. But in the longer term, they start recognizing things already at a distance.

I'm interested to know your take on the debate around drones, certainly privately owned drones, and how they are used in private, residential areas? You're not worried or concerned that you might be encouraging people to snoop on their neighbors while playing this game?

With this game, entirely not, because we really create a virtual reality, so what you see on your iPhone or iPad is the virtual world. So you see space, you see the International Space Station…

But you're encouraging the use of these drones in a private manner, aren't you? This is machinery that is, on the one hand, being used by official military organizations, but also by private people. And there's been a lot of concern over privacy issues…

I think a lot of the focus in this debate is on military applications, police, perhaps. But there is a really big range of civilian applications that will be very useful. Now, you will have to regulate, in some sense, what is happening. I see the drone, in our project, mainly as a toy with which people can do fantastic things. As with all technology, it can be used for bad things and for good things, and I trust that many people will use it in the right way.

Guido de Croon is a researcher at the European Space Agency.

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