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Real world sensors and Star Wars

Star Wars droids R2-D2 and C-3PO (Courtesy of Wookieepedia)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… the Star Wars universe introduced millions of science fiction fans to an epic saga that had many anxiously anticipating the release of the next instalment late last year. Being an engineer, I can’t help but think back to the original movies and the ideas created within them that are now a reality today. Lightsabers, unfortunately, we can still only imagine, but just focusing on “droids”, it’s remarkable where we are today.

Many of the “droid” sensor technologies related to Star Wars already exist today.Self-piloting vehicles being developed by several companies are prime examples of this.Google’s autonomous car (Figure 1), for instance, uses a rotating roof-top Lidar (Light detection and ranging) camera which measures the distance of objects from the vehicle to build a 3D map out to 200m, enabling the vehicle to detect potential hazards.To test out the capabilities of Lidar on a smaller scale, designers could use the SEN-13680 from SparkFun Electronics.

Figure 1:Google driverless car and its sensors (Courtesy of Google)

The Google car has many other sensors including a standard camera which looks through the windshield for potential obstacles and reads road signs in addition to performing traffic light detection.Additionally, there are altimeters, gyroscopes, and GPS components to give the car accurate positioning data for safe operation.

Many of the sensors used for automated ground transportation can also be used in aerial vehicles. Actually, today’s drones have the ability to offer reconnaissance abilities similar to Darth Vader’s “probe droids” (Figure 2).In addition to some of the sensors mentioned above, they can be equipped with optical distance sensors, still and video cameras, and Lidar, among others.Drones today have the ability to map terrain, monitor livestock, and even track targets.In fact, the US Army is currently testing a “pocket-sized” reconnaissance drone that feeds a video signal to a screen that is chest-mounted on a soldier’s vest. Weighing in at just 18g, these tiny drones have a range of just over half a mile.They carry three cameras, one of them being a thermal camera for night missions which enables soldiers to scout the terrain around them for potential hostile threats.

Figure 2: Star Wars probe droid. (Courtesy of Wookieepedia)

These “droids” collect sensor data and typically send it somewhere else.Therefore, all “droids” need some sort of communication to transmit the data they are tasked to collect and to interface with the outside world in order to receive their orders.Consequently, becoming part of the Internet of Things (IoT) may be the preferred method.This could be via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, or any other method that enables connection to the IoT, which is becoming more and more essential.Most robots today feed data back to some central processing entity which may have the capability to process vast amounts of input from a wide variety of sources.These entities could be “big data” processors which intelligently use the information, perhaps even learning with some form of artificial intelligence (AI), to increase efficiency, enhance safety, and reduce operational costs.

As of today, we are far from developing the droids of Star Wars with all of their capabilities.However, much of the sensor technology depicted in the epic space opera exists now.Even though the modern day robots may not have the absolute autonomy exhibited by R2-D2 and C-3PO (pictured), many of the sensors that enable their abilities are available today.For example, the Z5291-ND Omron Human Sensing and Understanding module, along with many more, are waiting to be used by robotic designers who are striving for droid-like creations.

The autonomous aspects exhibited by Star Wars droids are coming closer to reality every day.Most people have a mini version in their pocket today with Siri or Cortana. Google’s efforts in Quantum computing promise to continue to revolutionise this industry in the years to come until we all have our own personal droid assistant.

Until we are engaging in conversation with our own personal droid assistants, we will continue to look toward the sci-fi industries to keep imagining what tomorrow may look like and continue to embrace the engineering world that is striving to make it all a reality.

Rich Miron

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