Google Tango and US drone laws

Ramsey Faragher has been to Google’s headquarters to play with “Tango”, a next generation smartphone that comes with a built-in laser!
13 May 2014

Interview with 

Ramsey Faragher, Cambridge University


Project Tango Logo


Cambridge computer scientist Ramsey Faragher is in California and has been to Google's headquarters to play with a next generation smartphone called "Tango"  that even comes with a built-in laser! Chris Smith caught up with him to find out what it will do...

Ramsey - I got my hands on their project Tango, which is their brand-new prototype smartphone. It's everything you expect in a current smartphone, except it also contains a 3D laser scanner, 3 different cameras and 2 dedicated image processing chips. So, it can literally see and sense and map and image the world around it better than humans can.

Chris - What does it look like Ramsey?

Ramsey - Well, it looks like a normal smartphone. It's a little bit heavier and a little bit thicker. I think it's got slightly larger batteries because of all of the power consumption.

Chris - So, on the back of the phone where we would normally have just that one eye of a camera, there are two are there?

Ramsey - There's 3 things you notice - it has the normal camera you see and there's a source for a laser beam because it sprays infrared laser in order to detect the distance to objects. And then there's a special fish-eye infrared lens that picks all of that infrared laser light back up and measures which angle and direction it all came back from.

Chris - So, what's the point of this? How would I use it or how is it going to change my life?

Ramsey - Google have made 200 of these devices and given them to developers in order for people to start playing with them and start doing cool stuff. A lot of the things that I saw a couple of days ago, it was all augmented-reality games and augmented-reality applications. So because Tango can see the environment and it knows the distances and positions of all the objects in the scene, it can overlay information on the camera screen to change what you see of the world.  So, for example, I was chasing a cartoon bunny around the Google offices. I could see this little rabbit, and it could hide behind furniture, it could jump up onto objects in the environment even though it's just this virtual cartoon bunny. I think a big part of this will be playing computer games with people outside in the real world and interacting with the environment.

Chris - Could something like this be used to overlay anatomical information or a readout on the surface of the patient so the surgeon knows more precisely where that blood vessel is on the patient?

Ramsey - The kind of technology they're using, this laser-based camera technique, it will be able to overlay information on the real world to within a few millimetres back you see. So, you can see lots of applications for educational purposes and life-saving purposes. You can see a future where instead of people going on YouTube to look at how to fix their car engine and having to memorise it all, you can stand there, hold your phone and look at your car engine. And it will all be shown to you on the screen - what you need to do, what you need to lift, what you need to change, and so on.

Chris - And there's no danger with you going around zapping people with lasers flying out the back of your phone?

Ramsey - It's low-power infrared light that's being generated. It's actually a technology called structured light that projects a certain pattern of spots onto the world and if you are projecting onto a perfect flat wall, it knows exactly what those spots should look like. But, if there's objects in the way, the spots effectively move and the camera looks for these displaced spots and works out that there's an object in the way. So, it's eye-safe. It's not going to blind people.

Chris - Now, you're out in California, not just to go and see what Google are up to, but to go to a navigation conference. So, what's doing the rounds at the conference?

Ramsey - I'm sure everyone is familiar with how much the USA uses drones - not only in military operations but this growing use of autonomous aerial vehicles for domestic purposes as well. I'm sure we all remember the new story about the Amazon delivery drone back in December. The Federation Aviation Authority, the FAA over here has been trying to crack down on this commercial use.

Chris - Why is the FAA trying to stop people doing this, people have been building their own homemade aircraft for donkey's years? What's wrong with that?

Ramsey - It is all snowballing. They're now very cheap. They're very easy to fly. They have lots of onboard intelligence that makes them easy to fly. One of the biggest advances over the last few years has been, what's called "first person view flight". You wear a pair of goggles and you fly the plane as if you're sat in the cockpit. Now, this means you can fly it for half an hour in one direction. It may be 50 or 60 miles an hour, maintaining a link via the mobile phone network. So there are concerns over people making use of them for potentially dodgy means. And so, the FAA is trying to crackdown on people using these technologies. A chap called Raphael Pirker was fined 10,000 pounds by the FAA for flying his drone in what they said was "a dangerous manner". But he sued the FAA, claiming they had no authority to fine him or to take his drone off him, and he won. Basically, he argued in court - or his lawyer did - that they hadn't gone through the correct legal processes to turn these things into actual law. They were actually just recommendations. The judge agreed and it means that, in the words of some of my colleagues over in the States, it's the wild west. People can go outside and fly their drones around and the FAA can't come after them yet...


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