Upward Mobility: Your phone is your robot’s best friend

Rosie the Robot may feel more comfortable talking to Siri than to you

Recently, Glenn Martin wrote an article describing how robotics in moving out of the factory and into the house. And while Glenn restricted himself mainly to the type of robots that pop into your head when someone says the word (either the anthropomorphic variety or the industrial flavor), the reality is that there are a lot of robots already in the hands of consumers, although it might take a moment to recognize them as such.

I’m speaking of drones, and especially quadcopters, which are proliferating at an enormous rate, and are being used to do everything from documenting a cool skateboard move to creating a breathtaking overflight of a horrific disaster site.

By anything but the most pedantic definition, modern quadcopter drones are robots. Many can fly autonomously, all of them offer stabilization that makes flying them simple. Most can carry HD cameras as payloads, and some can stream the video back in real time to a device.

In the past, one of the big barriers to entry for people who wanted to do Remote Control (RC) aviation was the cost of the controller, which could easily dwarf the price of a starter plane or helicopter. But with this new generation of drones, WiFi is starting to replace dedicated radio frequencies as a way to communicate from an app (typically running on a smartphone or tablet) to the vehicle. And I believe this is also how we’re going to communicate with the more traditional robots that start to enter our lives.

We’re already seeing smartphones used as controls to open our doors, control our temperature and lighting, and interface with our cars. When we finally have our robotic butler, we may use voice commands, but we may also use a smartphone paired to the robot as a more reliable and secure way to communicate. With the TV blasting and kids yelling, a voice command from across the house might not get to our robot, but a command on a smartphone app linked to the robot via the household WiFi will.

With Google’s purchase of Nest, we’re sure to see increasing degrees of integration between Android and the Nest family of devices. The most interesting question, in my mind, is whether we’ll end up with a central application or integrated operating system support for our family of household robots, drones, and smart devices, or if we’ll continue to see individual apps for everything. If either Google or Apple created an initiative to standardize how smartphones talk to automation at an application level, it could go a long way toward eliminating the app clutter that will otherwise ensue.

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