The following story depicts a fictitious (at this point in time and as far as I know) company. If you happen to create a company based on this story please offer me at least a free tour when you make the inevitable fortune.
I experience one of those brief heart-stopping moments as the email appears in my Inbox. It is the name of the sender that catches my attention: Robotic Explorations. This email is the online invitation to my first self-guided tour. And I am going to explore the desolate reaches of the Australian Outback.
I had done one group tour in a South American rainforest with Robotic Explorations previously. The price was much lower mainly due to the larger number of virtual tourists, but after taking that tour I was determined to put myself in the driver’s seat and make my own path. But I am getting ahead of myself…I should probably explain what Robotic Explorations is all about.
As they say on their website, they offer their customers a unique virtual touring experience aided by a semi-autonomous robot. Basically they have a fleet of these very mobile rover-type robots. They are equipped with some kind of hybrid engine that provides lots of mileage very quietly (which is important when you want to spy on the local wildlife). Their website provides the interface to your robot which their local team deploys to your starting spot. Below is a picture of the interface you access from the web page.
So I’m getting all ready to start my trip. I chose a 24 hour time period. I have my computer hooked up to some nice speakers so I can get a good listen into the environment and I bought a Google Chromecast so I can see what the robot is seeing on my HD big screen.
Ok, I just got the message: “Congratulations, your rover is activated. Happy trails!” And the picture is coming in…wow, so cool. I am virtually in the Australian Outback. I was wondering about bandwidth issues, especially since these tours are often in the middle of nowhere. Apparently Robotic Explorations has addressed that challenge in its touring areas. I have heard explanations ranging from line of sight laser signals beamed from towers to hovering broadband repeaters…whatever it is, the picture and sound quality are great.
The robot is asking me where we should go. Let me ask him for a quick video pan of the area. Alright, we are going to head northwest. The terrain map indicates some type of small forest. Maybe we will see some cool creatures. So I’ll just click on that area and my robotic ambassador will route there as best as he can.
My control panel just flashed a “Rough terrain…” indicator. Uh oh…our first set back. It seems that the rover has tumbled down a hill and is on its side. The panel indicates: “Rover overturned; activating outriggers…”. I can see by the camera picture that he is righting himself, and now we are back on our wheels again. The panel displays “Reattempting previous route with increased torque.” Very carefully the robot ascends the hill and reaches more level ground. Fantastic effort.
I have the side cameras activated as we are driving in case something catches my eye. Wow, something just caught my eye. Not an animal but a really great view of the landscape. Let me stop him now and take a snapshot. Forgot to mention, my trip is linked to my Facebook account so I can post these photos as I take them. The application also puts a pin in my map where I took the snapshot. I’m adding the caption: “Enjoying the late afternoon view of the Australian Outback (with a beer).” Ok, onward…
Hold on, I just saw an alert icon on my display. The laser sweep picked up some movement a little to our east. Let’s check it out. I just clicked on the alert icon where it appeared in the map view and the rover is now re-routing and approaching. One nice thing about their app: you can have different web URLs for your control panel vs. your camera views. So I have the camera views on my big screen and I’m actually using their iPad app to control the robot. The rover is getting close to the source of the motion so I got the message: “Switching to stealth mode”. I clicked “Ok”. I think this runs the motor on all battery to make him real quiet on approach. I think I see something. I’m stopping the rover and zooming in. It’s a bunch of birds around a small pond. Strange looking birds, cool. Going to snap another photo for Facebook. Just noticed my friend posted a comment on my last picture: “What the hell are you doing in the Australian Outback?”
I’m back…I’ve been a little lazy about updating this post because I’m really enjoying just wandering around and feeling like I’m out there in the great abandon. Another movement alert up ahead. It’s horses…three small horses wandering by. I click on a horse in the camera display and select “Track with rover”. This action makes the rover follow them from an adjustable offset. We follow them for a ways as they head towards a large rock formation. They enter a narrow ravine between two steep rocks and we continue after them. The robot’s camera adjusts for the dimmer light and activates the picture stabilization. Suddenly one of the horses lets out a snort and they race off. I don’t think we will be able to catch them. I zoom in on the satellite picture to see if we can make it through this ravine. The rover’s LIDAR is optimistic about a way out so we continue.
My attention is drawn to the left side camera. What I first thought was just discolorations on the rock walls that line this ravine are actually…paintings. They remind me of prehistoric cave paintings. It seems to depict some sort of creature with claws being held off by people.
It’s a little difficult to describe. I’ll take some photos and post on Facebook to see what other people think of it. I remember that my contact at Robotic Explorations indicated my rover was being deployed to a very remote part of the Outback seldom hiked by people due to its desolation. My rover was delivered to its starting point by a small helicopter. Could it be that my photographs are the first to be taken by an outsider? Am I the first visitor to this land to make this discovery? Although my photos will record the latitude and longitude I am definitely marking this point with a trip pin.
It’s getting dark now. I think I am going to take a look at the sky with the panoramic. The robot camera is adjusting for the dim light. Now I can see stars…lots of stars. Another photo opp. What’s that? Rover picked up significant sound reading not too far off. I click on the direction to indicate my approval. Let’s go.
Once again we go into stealth mode as we approach objects in motion. Too dark so night vision is enabled. Not as brilliant as day time shots but what are you going to do? Ooh, I just saw the reflection of some glowing eyes (enough moonlight for that I guess). Wow, about four…nope, at least eight dog things. Maybe these are dingoes. Did I mention I’m not an expert on the Australian Outback? Doesn’t matter to me; makes it even more interesting and surprising in some ways. Yeah, I’m seeing a pack of these dogs eating something on the ground. Looks like feathers, some kind of very big bird. I’m going to tell Rover to move in very slowly. This warrants video; I have enough allowance for some footage on this trip. Audio is good too. Can hear them yelping at each other as they compete for the best eating spots. After a while, they disperse into the darkness.
I should mention I really can’t go anywhere I want. The map has boundaries, I guess limited to where Robotic Explorations has worked out touring rights. If I try to go beyond the boundaries, the robot won’t let me. But it doesn’t matter, the area is bigger than what I could probably see in a year. Speaking of that, this tour route (the route of points to where I actually go) will be saved with my account. So if I do happen to want to come back here, I can overlay previous trips to revisit key pinned places or make sure I explore new areas.
I’m only a couple of hours into this trip but I can’t explain how cool it is to feel like I’m exploring this part of the world “on my own”. I should mention that Robotic Explorations has another option that is more expensive but sounds unbelievably cool. You can rent a rover that is also a docking station for a UAV drone. The drone uses the fuel powered rover as a charging station when it has to. Basically you can release the drone and get an aerial view (and photos and videos) from where you are. You control the altitude with the control panel and click the destination as well – just click on the map and the drone will go there. There is also a feature to track an object that the drone camera recognizes it. So the drone will follow your target with its camera if it moves. With one click you can return the drone to the docking station rover. I have also heard rumors of plans for submarine tours in the future. Going to start saving my pennies for the next trip.
So how should I answer all these “where ARE you??!!’ comments popping up in Facebook?