Just Because You Can ...

June 2014
By Bryan Bergeron

I’m just back from an early morning run; snow is still on the ground in Boston. The run was good and the weather perfect, but the most notable event was the traffic. Imagine at the start of rush hour, a middle-aged man pulling out in the middle of the congested highway on a plastic ice chest. Granted, it had four wheels and headlights, and other than stock handles, no bumpers, plus no horn. He caused quite a scene with cars screeching to a halt to allow for his top speed of maybe 20 mph. I assume the chest was filled with a pair of car batteries and a motor. I didn’t see a steering mechanism (or helmet or seat belt), but assume he used some sort of dual motor driver. Let’s just say he didn’t make any friends — for himself or his fellow roboticists.

As we’ve seen with drones, once the public is aware of a robotic technology regulations are quick to follow. Given this fellow’s performance, I doubt that any of the drivers on the highway — trying to get to their jobs and drop off the kids at school — have a warm and fuzzy feeling for experimental electrical vehicles. Talk about negative marketing for robotics.

If you’re thinking of building an experimental underwater vehicle, pick a nice quiet pond or deserted shoreline. Don’t go experimenting around small kids, and try to avoid adding a dorsal fin to your device. Most people aren’t expecting experimental vehicles in the water, and clearing the beach because of a false shark sighting isn’t going to do much for serious underwater vehicle experimentation.

In addition to the public relations issues associated with keeping your experiments out of sight, there are myriad liability issues. I know of one drone manufacturing company that recently had their insurance rates triple because one of their test drones disappeared over the horizon, only to land in the windshield of an expensive sports car.

If you’re working with drones, have a kill switch if you don’t have an auto return to base capability. Similarly, if you’re into motorizing plastic ice chests or barbeque pits, then keep them off the road or try deserted parking lots early on Sunday morning.

Granted, it’s often inconvenient to take your platform out for a five minute test and then pack up and head back to your shop. I’ve seen university professors test model helicopters in front of the engineering buildings — close enough for pedestrians to be speared by a broken prop should a crash occur. Fortunately, to my knowledge, there haven’t been any major accidents due to these tests.

The bottom line is that there’s a time and place for experimental robotics. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Keep it safe and keep it away from casual onlookers. Sure, it’s nice to have an audience, but experimental systems are just that. Save the exhibitions for the commercial versions of your inventions when you can make a great positive first impression.

Posted by Michael Kaudze on 05/22 at 11:01 AM


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