By Sudarshana Banerjee

George Windsor, a Boeing engineer, sat in a small room at a Boeing building in Seattle. He picked up an iPhone, and started tapping at it. 3,000 miles away, on a baseball field on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) started to turn and fly.

As you may have guessed, this is not the demo of a Butterfly Effect. Students at MIT’s  Humans and Automation Lab and researchers at the Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing’s advanced, central R&D unit, are working to prove that a smart phone can be used to quickly and safely fly miniature unmanned aircraft. The MIT students have designed a prototype, easy-to-use application.

The UAV has a camera which shows up on the iPhone screen, and the controller sitting in a remote location can tilt or tap at the phone to navigate through the terrain. Alternately, the iPhone has detailed map views, and clicking on specific locations on the map makes the UAV go there. You can watch a video of the demonstration here.

Named Micro Aerial Vehicle Visualization of Unexplored Environments, or MAV-VUE, the project is a part of Boeing’s overall advanced R&D efforts. The company is working with industry and university partners such as MIT to develop better, simpler ways for people to control UAVs. These applications could allow UAVs to be used more effectively for tasks that are dirty or dangerous, as well as for missions that may be too long and tedious to have a human be continuously at the controls.

“Imagine a soldier pulling a small, lightweight UAV out of a backpack, and then controlling it – without having to micromanage the flight behaviors of the vehicle – to see around an otherwise inaccessible spot on the battlefield,” said Joshua Downs, a human factors specialist with Boeing Research & Technology and the Boeing technical leader of the MAV-VUE project.

The most significant thing about this long-distance control, explains MIT associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics Mary “Missy” Cummings — who designed the controller along with her students in the MIT Humans and Automation Lab — is how easy it is for even an inexperienced person to fly the plane. The control system is so simple and intuitive that operators can take charge of flying the plane after just a few minutes of instruction. By comparison, soldiers who control existing UAVs must undergo a comprehensive, months-long training program.

What next? Use an iPhone to control a jumbo jet? Cummings does not rule out the possibility. Theoretically it should be possible.  In practice, it could easily replace the control systems not only for military drones, but for UAVs used by emergency personnel: for example, to track the progress of a forest fire in a remote area from a safe distance.

You may have read about Google trying to build a driverless car along with the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, that can navigate through traffic. We already have vehicles that help drivers with reversing and parallel parking. Let the vehicle drive itself to work Monday mornings!