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MIT: Drones can help people, too

Researchers at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory have invented a drone that can guide visitors around MIT’s maze-like campus, as shown in this video screen grab.

MIT Senseable City Laboratory

Researchers at the MIT Senseable City Laboratory have invented a drone that can guide visitors around MIT’s maze-like campus, as shown in this video screen grab.

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If any institution can rebrand the drone, it’s MIT. Most Americans justifiably think of the sinister-looking unmanned aircraft as flying killing machines — since, in their best-known application as a military vehicle, that’s what they are.

But like astronaut ice cream and the Internet, drones are a military innovation that has plenty of potential civilian uses. An MIT lab is working on turning a drone into a flying tour guide that would help direct lost visitors around the school’s Cambridge campus. Users could summon the robot with the swipe of a smartphone, and the device would direct visitors to their destination — all while sharing sightseeing tips.

The drones are a long way from becoming reality; for one thing, they’re not allowed by the FAA. But popularizing such devices would serve a useful purpose, and not just by helping stranded tourists. The sci-fi creepiness of military drones tends to color the debate about their use in unhelpful ways. Seeing drones patrol our own skies might convince Americans that their use as a weapon of war should be curtailed. On the other hand, deploying more drones for other purposes could demystify them. Either way, unmanned craft have great promise, and MIT is wise to take the lead in developing civilian uses.

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