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Lost on MIT’s campus? Follow the drone

It is notoriously easy to get lost on MIT’s mazelike campus. But soon, bewildered visitors could use a smartphone to beckon a small, hovering drone aircraft to show them the way.

At the MIT SENSEable City Laboratory, researchers are working to perfect the technology behind the SkyCall project, which will allow users to summon and communicate with the quadcopters via a special app. In addition to directing visitors, the small flying robot highlights interesting points they pass along the way by speaking to users through their phone.

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After months of trial and error that led to at least one crash landing in the Charles River, the project had its first successful launch last month, the researchers said. The prototype is not ready for public use yet, they said, in part because FAA regulations currently bar such uses.

The project shows the growing potential for drones, beyond bombing raids and spying missions.

“Our imaginations of flying sentient vehicles are filled with dystopian notions of surveillance and control, but this technology should be tasked with optimism,” Yaniv Jacob Turgeman, who heads research and development, said by e-mail.

A clip posted to YouTube that demonstrates the technology pokes fun at “someone you would typically expect to be lost within MIT.” The video’s flummoxed main character, who is shown being led through campus by the drone, wears a bowtie and a Harvard lanyard and pin.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at mjrochele@globe.com.
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