Are unmanned aerial vehicles the future of flimsy rope bridges spun out over deep and terrifying chasms? I am happy to report that the answer is “probably.” Quartz reports that researchers from the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zurich (ETH Zurich) in Switzerland have released a video that shows three autonomous quadcopters equipped with spools of rope working together to construct a rudimentary 24-foot bridge between two scaffolds. The final product is sturdy enough to support a man’s weight but minimal enough to scare the crap out of you if you try to use it. Basically, this video is exactly what all the Indiana Jones movies would have looked like if Indy were into robots instead of whips.
It’s probably worth noting that the bridge was built in one of the most controlled environments imaginable: the Flying Machine Arena, a specially built drone testing ground housed at ETH Zurich that eliminates the sort of unpredictable interruptions a drone might face in the real world. (The ETH Zurich researchers have also built a portable version of the arena.) The arena boasts an intricate motion-capture system that gathers data on a given drone’s position and trajectory, processes the data in real time, and then tells that drone where to go next. But a system that works well in a lab might not work quite as well out in unmoderated space beset with wind and rain and birds and stray yo-yos and other aerial hazards. It’s easy for drones to build a bridge in a space that has been built specifically for drones to build bridges in. It remains to be seen how well they would work under suboptimal conditions.
To me, the most interesting thing about this video isn’t the rope bridge itself, but its implications for how drones might eventually be used for building purposes. I don’t think that drones will ever replace human builders—for one thing, there’s a limit to what a typical drone can carry, and for now that limit is basically “a spool of rope”—but they might well replace some of the ground-bound robots that are already used in construction today. (You don’t need to erect a scaffold or rent a crane to get a drone up the 10th floor of a building under construction, for example.) Anyway, however this line of research plays out, I do think it’s nice to remember that drones can be used to do more than just spy on you, take your job, or hit you on the head. Sometimes, they can be used to do cool things with ropes. The future is now!
This article is part of a Future Tense series on the future of drones and is part of a larger project, supported by a grant from Omidyar Network and Humanity United, that includes a drone primer from New America.