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New drone and droid tech inches us closer to riding with an all-AI entourage

By Benjamin Bullard
The Skydio 2 self-piloting drone

With a self-guiding drone hovering over your shoulder, a not-too-humanoid robot sidekick as your wingman, and a four-legged fetch ‘bot trotting along beside, the day when you can surround yourself with a whole gaggle of AI-powered helpers is already here … even if it’s still the wee hours of the early morning.

Whether by air, on wheels, or even on padded little robot paws, the technology that drives our mechanized helpers is reaching that autonomous point at which the droids are able to think for themselves as they carry out their limited missions. Sure, they’re not quite ready to cross platforms and begin communicating with one another just yet, but at least they all can communicate with you — which pretty much makes you the star character in your budding little electronic entourage.

Perhaps most impressive among what feels like an inundation of recent AI-driven robot reveals is the Skydio 2, a camera-toting drone that doesn’t need outside input to follow you around and choose the best angle from which to film all the amazing stuff you do. It doesn’t pull double duty as the pop-out sunroof of your flying car, and it can’t do super-long-range reconnaissance as you infiltrate an abandoned Las Vegas strip — but in other respects, it’s not so different in concept from the buddy drone that follows Ryan Gosling’s K around in Blade Runner 2049

The crazy thing about the Skydio 2 is how accessible a piece of kit it already is. Priced at $999, the self-guiding flier can reportedly go for 23 minutes, range more than 2 miles from its control base, and negotiate just about any visible obstacle thanks to the presence of six 4k navigation cameras.

When you and your flying pal get home from a long day of replicant retiring, you’re gonna wanna kick back and chill, and an emerging AI from Toyota is hard at work learning the ropes of acclimating itself to what it is you want — and telling its rolling robot body how to get around the house to achieve it.

Via Engadget, the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is testing a VR training system that trusts the robot itself to learn how to relate its at-home tasks to what its human “teacher” shows it. A human handler “can instruct the robot and annotate [a VR-captured] 3D scene, for instance adding a note on how to grasp a handle,” the report explains. The process allows the ‘bot to adaptively figure out how to interact with “a variety of objects,” essentially recruiting them to “view” their role in your life in a more organic, and less prescribed, way. 

The tech is still experimental, and even when it does trickle down to the consumer level, it still won’t be as endearing as the doglike, four-legged Spot robot that Boston Dynamics released for corporate use just last week. But even when we do finally reach the day when all your robots find a place in your home and you’re one big happy family, just remember: You’re never truly safe. Just ask Anvil, the Russian-made battering-ram drone whose sole purpose is to bully other drones, in close-quarters melee combat, right out of the sky.

Of course, you could always just grab yourself one of those, too — so you and Spot can get a good night’s rest, no matter what kind of nefarious drone tech comes knocking.