I’ve just finished speaking at the Wired 2014 London Conference, my presentation focused on my experiences learning to fly the Parrot AR Drone using the NodeCopter framework which is built on Node.js. I also wanted to highlight the importance of having open architectures and API’s, whether that’s a piece of software you’re developing or it’s that new remote control drone you’ve got in development.
Because without that openness, I wouldn’t have been able to fly the Parrot AR Drone remotely from 300 miles away using just my head movements and right index finger. Open All the Things!
The Text of My Presentation
Hello! I’ve come here in a robot, look!
I’d like to talk to you today about using robots to access the world, to participate in it. I’m talking, really, about the extensible self. I’m here but I’m not here. I’m driving this thing, but I am not this thing.
You know, for me, becoming quadriplegic makes me feel a bit like this anyway. As the connections between my brain and my body are disrupted, I get a really strong sense of being a brain in a jar, a self driving around a body. It’s just a small step from there to driving around a robot. In fact a robot is better in a lot of ways. It can look round corners. It can zip dow narrow corridors. And most importantly, some of them can fly.
It really feels like I’m reaching out into the world through this screen.
Of course we all do this anyway. You guys extend your bodies all the time: you put on gloves and reach into your oven, you put on goggles and swim underwater, you throw your voice down phone wires, into the air, into space!
I’ve extended myself through this robot like a hand waving a flag out of a window: You can see me! I’m here! Hello!
So “the extensible self” means using robots to move through the places you can’t go. If you’re able bodied, that’s useful, that’s fun, that’s cool. But if your mobility is restricted, it’s life changing. It’s everything. Because often you can’t go anywhere.
From 2009 to just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t leave my house. For most of that time I couldn’t leave my bed. I can’t move my arms and legs any more, and so for years and years I lay on one side, and then the other, unable to even see out of the window.
I know, total bummer, right? But at least no one can spoil me for Breaking Bad. And thank Bob for the internet.
It was on the internet I saw a TED Talk about drone flight and I instantly saw how drones could give me back a sensation of movement: of how they could get me out of my house, my bedroom, my body … just out of here!
Now, I wasn’t the first person to think this, and eventually I got in touch with Professor Chad Jenkins and his team at Brown University. They’re working on an extension to the Robot Operating System called EMPOWER— look it up it’s really cool. They’re the ones that introduced me to the Parrot AR drone. And that’s what I’m going to be flying today.
[THE DRONE TAKES OFF AND HOVERS, AND I TRY NOT TO CRASH]
I can’t move my body, but I can fly.
Aren’t robots awesome?
This drone isn’t meant for disabled people— in fact, out of the box I can’t fly it at all. But because it’s scriptable, because it’s hackable, I can find ways to use it myself.
I’m using Nodecopter built on node.js to fly this today. Andrew from the NodeCopter team been madly coding this week so I could fly this drone over the internet.
Nodecopter is brilliant, and so is the Parrot. But through robotsandcake I’m working with Kevin Finisterre on Operation Quadricopter. Kevin is building a new drone, one designed to be flown with my head. Hooked up to FPV goggles, I will be able to actually experience flight.
None of this would be possible with closed systems. Because the people at Parrot put out an API, because the people at Nodecopter built a new control interface, I can be here with all of you.
Any time you leave a system open, any time you make it scriptable, any time you let people decide how they want to use your tools, any time you let others not just use your work but build on your work, you make it easier for me, and for all people, to expand our world.
To extend ourselves.