Drones with a sense of direction mean less dependence on human pilots

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Commercial drones are starting to be used for tasks like inspecting oil rigs and crops. But they still require a highly skilled human pilot, and even those that are semi-autonomous usually use prebuilt maps or access the data over a wireless link.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich are making drones more independent. They have demonstrated a small drone that can build its own 3D map of an unfamiliar environment with minimal help from a human operator, and then plan its own routes around a space and its obstacles autonomously.

“This is the first time we can show full mapping, relocalization — finding the drone on the map — and planning on board,” says researcher Michael Burri, who worked on the project. The combination of software and sensors could make it easier to deploy drones for tasks like inspecting an oil rig, he says. A company would need to do one manual flight to have a drone build its map. For subsequent inspections, the drone could do the job autonomously. Read more…

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BreakFree Helps Smartphone Addicts Overcome Their Dependence

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Popular smartphone addict app for Android, BreakFree, is coming to iOS in early- to mid-July.

The app helps users understand the extent of their mobile addictions and provides them with simple cycle-breaking tools to overcome unhealthy behaviors.

Users are given an “Addiction Score” and subsequently alerted when they are entering the red zone (coming close to that score). Tools include muting, disabling the Internet, rejecting calls at scheduled times, non-instrusive alerts the tell users how often they are unlocking their phones and when they’ve been on their phones for more than 10 minutes.

“We observed that most unlocks are just a knee-jerk reaction to kill time,” said BreakFree’s developer Mrigaen Kapadia, who is based in India. “The app also tracks the amount of time users spend on their phones, the number of app launches, phone calls and time spent on calls.”

A study by Flurry found that mobile addicts are effectively wearing their devices, launching apps over 60 times per day.

Kapadia came up with the idea after he and his wife realized they were spending too much time on their phones, which was cutting into the couple’s quality time together. “After dinner, we preferred the company of our phones to each others’ company,” he said. “We kept talking about reducing our phone usage, but never really did anything about it.”

The idea was conceptualized when Kapadia and his brother-in-law were talking about how hooked people are to their phones. “We thought it would be cool to have an app that would sit in the background monitoring usage patterns and making people aware of their addiction levels,” said Kapadia.

Soon thereafter, Kapadia and his wife started researching how to calculate the Addiction Score, which makes up the core of the app. “This score is an algorithm we designed after researching the habits of different types of smartphone users over a period of four weeks,” Kapadia said. “The app functions much like psychological interventions that start with realization and work toward behavior modification.”

Kapadia quit his job in November 2013 to work full-time on BreakFree. The app has two revenue streams: The first lets users make in-app purchases that unlock extra features. The second is from ads that appear at the bottom of the screen in the free version. “We’re still bootstrapped and need this revenue to fund the app,” said Kapadia. “However, our main focus now is building our user base.”

Kapadia’s plans for the future involve social features that let users compete for better scores and more robust parental controls that enable switching off the Internet at certain hours. Currently, parents can monitor usage patterns and addiction scores of their children.

“We are in talks with local restaurants and coffee shops to encourage people to use BreakFree while on the premises,” added Kapadia. “We feel this will take BreakFree to the next level.” If the model works, Kapadia hopes to partner with chains outside of India.

According to the Flurry study, mobile addiction increased more than 100 percent from 2013 to 2014 and continues to grow an an alarming rate. As of March of this year, there were 176 million smartphone addicts.

Kapadia says having the app installed on their phones has made him and his wife think twice before using them. “I personally find the prompt at unlock a little annoying, but my wife swears by it,” he said. “When I realize I’m in the red zone, I simply put my phone away, which itself is a big improvement from my pre-BreakFree days.”

The couple also schedule BreakFree hours each week to be sure they fully participate in activities such as watching a movie together.

*images via Google Play

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