Thursday, December 18, 2003

You'll Believe a Robot Can Fly!

On this only-late-a-day anniversary of the Wright brothers' feat, I thought I'd talk about flying robots.

Paul Hoffman writes in the New York Times about the historical significance of the brothers' flight. Not the first airborne flight (that was the Montgolfiers), not the first heavier-than-air craft, not even the first powered flight. It was the first controlled flight; the genius was the use of wing-warping to independently control the wings. Like many technological advances, it was a new way for a human to extend his will through the limbs of a device: just another step toward human-machine symbiosis.

Control is still the hallmark of progress in aviation. Airframes, for most of the history of flight, were stable. That is, a sudden loss of power -- or of control -- and the plane would glide ahead in a straight line (and, of course, a little downward). With the advent of fly-by-wire (that is, electronic control of control surfaces, rather than hydraulic), of computers small enough to place on board, and (most importantly) of computers powerful enough to model and design airframes, a new generation was born. These new planes were dynamically unstable; a loss of control would quickly send the plane hurtling away from its original bearing. Replacing control born of aerodynamic stability was a constant adjustment by computer; too fast and too small for a human to perform, or even notice.

In a real sense, modern aircraft are robots; they receive directions from humans indicating bearing, they sense the minute changes in control surface status and environmental conditions, and they actuate controls to return to the original state. No, they are not autonomous robots in the sense of UAVs (although many of those are just remote control) or the hey-the-whole-ship-is-a-Cylon in Battlestar Galactica (but seriously, how cool was that?). But in a more interesting and probably more common way, they represent the mode of robotic technology that is otherwise invisible, but capable of handling tasks impossible for humans. And doing so in concert with humans so that the sum total is more capable than either is alone.