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A Modest Proposal: Rental Robots

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In the series “A Modest Proposal,” my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

The Griffin Helo is remote-controlled by iPhone.

Model helicopters can now be controlled with your iPhone. Although the Griffin Helo does not carry a camera, one can always imagine jury-rigging a drone that does — one might conceivably duct-tape a smartphone onto a radio-controlled aircraft, remotely pilot that airplane with a handheld transmitter and monitor where it goes with another smartphone video-conferencing with the phone onboard the aircraft.

To me, this raises the possibility of rental robots. Wheeled and even airborne telepresence robots already exist — would it make more sense to rent a droid instead of paying thousands of dollars to buy one? Imagine logging onto a site with your smartphone and using it to pilot a radio-controlled machine of some kind — car, helicopter, airship, plane, boat, sub? Perhaps something more exotic, like an insectoid or humanoid?

Imagine sightseers who might like a bird’s eye view over a landmark. Severely disabled patients exploring rugged mountains and valleys. Surveyors inspecting sites. Couriers delivering packages. Reporters and detectives pursuing investigations. I would imagine robot rental agencies would offer service mostly only to local or regional customers — too far out, and the lag that communications signals would face would be prohibitive.

The main problem I see with the idea of robot rental? The question of liability. Who is liable for damages if a robot injures or kills someone? The person renting the robot? The agency that offered the robot for rent? The robot’s manufacturer? Any of the telecommunications companies through which the robot was being piloted? Any hackers that might hijack the signal?

In addition, are there new rules and regulations that need to get instituted? Do you need a license to pilot a robot? Do you need to buy insurance?

The most feasible legal scenario that I see for a robot rental agency would be to offer experienced pilots who would act much like chauffeurs. Customers watching over a video feed would direct pilots to maneuver robots this way or that, and the pilots would make sure to avoid accidents and to ignore illegal commands. One might be able to avoid rules and regulations this way — I believe there is, for instance, no need for licenses to pilot radio-controlled vehicles in the United States.

Of course, even if robot rental is banned, that doesn’t stop criminals providing illegal services. Could stalkers or paparazzi use robots to harass victims? Could hackers use droids to snoop on cell-phone and WiFi networks? Even commercial radio-controlled aircraft can dive-bomb people to inflict bodily harm, much less military unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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