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*batteries not included: A family of alien unmanned aerial vehicles make delivery and manipulation l

Recommendation: Pull a Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and release your inner girly-girl: Watch the movie and then go fly some drones and imagine what it would be like to program a drone that had arms.

This overlooked 1987 movie was co-written by Brad Bird (his first screenwriting job), co-produced by Steven Spielberg, and starred the original acting power couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. About the only thing missing in its pedigree is Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. Why *batteries not included was only a modest success remains a mystery. The movie that has so many attractive elements: The robots are alien robots! They fly! They have robot babies! Yes, a movie about the cutest alien unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)s with end effectors EVER. One explanation for the dismissal by the public is that everyone was expecting another Cocoon, the blockbuster, award-winning sci-fi hit that established Ronny Howard, the little kid from The Andy Griffith Show and the teenager from Happy Days, as Ron Howard, the serious director. Cocoon was very much a comedy/drama about aging with science fiction as the enabler for the plot, while *batteries not included was more of the traditional sci-fi movie, which studios really didn’t know how to market.

Putting manipulators on a UAV is no mean feat. The control software needed to keep a quadcopter from falling out of the sky is very complex, especially with different wind conditions, mechanical turbulence and wind shear from buildings or flying close to the ground etc. Delivery with a UAV is even harder because the weight changes with pickup and dropoff, and thus the controls have to operate—correctly and predictably—across a wide range of conditions. At a minimum, the package has to be within the maximum take-off weight for the system and mounted on the center of gravity to keep balance. A dangling package creates a sling load that can begin to swing dangerously in the wind or in a reaction to sudden movement and cause a crash (this happens with those big Huey helicopter too). Adding a manipulator is more than just mounting a lightweight arm in the center of the UAV—it adds much more control complexity because the arm has to reach down or out, pick up or grasp an object, and perhaps pull or twist. Grasping is still very much an open research question, with soft robotics as one solution, see my review of Big Hero 6 for a description. Manipulation (see the topic here) is hard enough for a stationary, heavy robot whose body serves as a counterweight.

The movie also pushes the boundaries of traditional multi-robot teams. Many researchers have tried different ways to categorize multi-robot teams. For example, by the types of robots in a team, either homogeneous or heterogeneous, or by the control type, centralized or distributed. Another approach is by social (or interaction) relationship: peer, manager, coach, master-slave, and so on. Every researcher has missed “family” as a relationship for a multi-robot team. Or perhaps shuddered to think about it and repressed that thought, because a family has members with complex social relationships, the members are heterogeneous (the babies aren’t equally capable as the parents), they have a loosely centralized control regime (the parents are theoretically in charge of the children, but as any parent knows, this can be wistful thinking), and everything changes over time. Very hard to program.

Hmmm, lots of talk about science, but what’s the plot you ask? Remember that fairy tale about the elves helping the nice shoemaker and his wife-- Bingo. The alien UAVs are the little elves helping the lovable old couple save their building being demolished by the bad landlord. But there’s nothing wrong with being yet another version of a familiar trope when there’s lovable robots involved.

Grab some popcorn, someone to hug, put this on the big screen and go “awwwww” at the sheer adorableness of the alien robots. The movie moves fast enough you won’t have time to think about the difficulty aerial manipulation and multi-robot coordination, but give a little nod of approval to the Fix-It family.

Buy or rent *batteries not included today on Amazon Prime Video – follow the link below:

- Robin

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