Get ready for homebrew swarms.
Cheap, flexible mobile sensor platforms have a great deal of utility for understanding the environment, whether out in the wilderness or deep in the city. Cameras, chemical sensors, pressure meters, biosensors, and more can be even more useful when put on a platform that's able to move around, sending signals back via radio. Mobile platforms that travel on the land or in the water are definitely useful, but most intriguing are those that fly.
Small robotic flyers have a variety of potential applications, from environmental monitoring to security to disaster recovery. Most commercial manufacturers of "unmanned aerial vehicles" (UAVs) cater to the needs of the military, however, and the products are priced accordingly. But if you're not interested in a UAV to travel halfway around the world (or shoot something with a Hellfire missile...), it's possible now to build semi-autonomous microbot flyers using material from the local hobby store and free/open source software. And in the not too distant future, it will be possible to build a group of flyers able to communicate with each other and coordinate movement.
The do-it-your-own-damn-self 'zine Make points us to a collection of open source UAV links. It turns out that quite a few different developers are working on the tools to make and control flying microbots. Perhaps furthest along is the Paparazzi fixed-wing micro-air-vehicle, able to fly for 45 minutes with half a kilo of payload. The Paparazzi site has a full set of control applications and design plans. Close behind is the Autopilot project, software for controlling microbot helicopters; the code is forked from software which has gone into major commercial UAVs. Microbot helicopters attract more interest than fixed-wing flyers because they can hover, providing a better platform for video and extended monitoring.
If you want to make your own microbot helicopter, a full set of plans are available for a system an embedded Linux computer and a Bluetooth data connection, costing around $500 or so to build.
As homemade microbot flyers become more reliable, the next step will be to make them communicate not just with a base, but with each other. As we noted a few days ago, microbot helicopter swarms are already being proposed as disaster recovery tools, as they can handle rough terrain far better than ground units, can be outfitted with a variety of sensor devices (without having to load a heavy variety on a single flyer), and using existing ad-hoc network software, can maintain a mesh communication grid with a range better than any single unit.
What would a hobbyist want with a swarm of microbots? Aside from the impress-your-friends factor, the individual utility is a bit unclear. But the real value would be in the dramatic reduction of cost of mobile flying sensor swarms for NGOs and poorly-funded relief and environmental groups. A few thousand dollars and a few dozen hours of work could result in a collection of semi-autonomous flyers able to monitor a wide area, greatly expanding a team's field of vision. Search and rescue operations, hazardous material cleanup, and (especially) sousveillance efforts during protests would find microflyer swarms very useful.
And while the current homebrew helicopter platform is relatively sizeable, future designs need not be so large. As energy storage technology improves, the microbots can get smaller and last longer. Don't be surprised if, not too many years from now, buzzing swarms of tiny flying cameras and recorders are commonplace tools for reporters, activists, and field researchers -- as well as for the police, the military and first responder teams.
One wonders at what point do these things become so common for average people that they need to be regulated. I have this vision of an automobile wreck caused by one of these robots and a spate of lawsuits and government hearings.
I wouldn't be too concerned about automobile wrecks from microbots...for those who want to do such a thing, it's much cheaper to hit a car with a rock. I live in the DC area, though, and I have to wonder how the restricted airspace all around here applies.