On July 29, some rather strange flying machines will take to the skies over Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology in the first aerial robotics competition. The entrants, sponsored by universities and industry, will have one task: move half a dozen metal disks from one side of a volleyball court to another in three minutes or less. This seemingly simple chore is a true challenge for this new class of aerial robots. Unlike earlier flying robots that were radio-controlled by humans, these steel birds must locate, retrieve, and transport the disks without any human direction at all.
Although such robots are still experimental, advances in mechanical vision systems, computing power, and software have made them feasible. The machines, made from off-the-shelf technology, "show that autonomy in aerial vehicles is not that far off," declares Robert C. Michelson, vice-president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems. Flying robots could help cut costs or avoid risk to humans in a variety of ways. The military sees a use for them on battlefields to avoid exposing soldiers to hostile fire. They could also come in handy for monitoring utility lines or checking forests for disease.