Drones are handy. They can move in every direction, hover in place, and navigate spaces that wheels simply can’t. They’re already being used outdoors, but they’d be just as useful in shopping malls and grocery stores. There’s just one drawback: they’re freakin’ scary. A flying plastic skeleton covered in spinning blades is not our idea of a positive customer experience. That’s why researchers at Georgia Tech are working on improving human comfort level when it comes to drone interaction. One idea: instead of helicopters, why not blimps?
Service on the Fly
The blimps the researchers at Georgia Tech are developing look like a small drone attached to a high-end party balloon flipped on its side. The drone is built into a 3D-printed frame, and the balloon measures either 18 or 36 inches (46 or 91 cm). Instead of whipping around with frightening speed, the blimp drones give the impression that they’re lazily floating through space—even though they’re programmed to go exactly where they’re told, quickly and efficiently. What’s more, the spinning propellers the drones do have are protected by the balloon above, so if an oblivious human accidentally bumps into them, nobody will get hurt.
Sensors and a camera are designed to help the blimps recognize facial expressions and read hand motions. That way, they could greet you as you entered an establishment, or be waved over for assistance.
“Imagine a blimp greeting you at the front of the hardware store, ready to offer assistance,” lead researcher Fumin Zhang tells New Atlas. “People are good at reading people’s faces and sensing if they need help or not. Robots could do the same. And if you needed help, the blimp could ask, then lead you to the correct aisle, flying above the crowds and out of the way.” Drone customer service? Perfect—one less reason to look presentable at the grocery store.