Monday, March 05, 2012

It was after the robotic hummingbird flew around the auditorium -- and after a speaker talked about the hypersonic plane that could fly from New York to the West Coast in 11 minutes -- that things got really edgy.

Vijay Kumar, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, showed the more than 1,300 attendees at last week's TED conference several videos in which fleets of tiny flying robots performed a series of intricate manuevers, working together on tasks without colliding or interfering with each others' flightworthiness.

It seemed that, at least for some in the audience, a bridge had been crossed into a new era of technology, one that could change the way we think about robots and their application to such fields as construction, shipping and responding to emergencies.

Kumar's devices (he calls them "Autonomous Agile Aerial Robots") cooperated on building simple structures and showed they were capable of entering a building for the first time and quickly constructing a map that would allow for assessment and response to a structural collapse or fire.

He held up one robot, designed by his students Daniel Mellinger and Alex Kushleyev, which weighs a little more than a tenth of a pound and is about 8 inches in diameter. The device has four rotors; when they spin at the same speed, the robot hovers. If you increase the speed, Kumar explained, the robot flies up. Spinning one rotor faster than the one opposite it causes the robot to tilt. It also can flip over multiple times without losing its ability to fly and can recover its stability when thrown into the air.

The robots are capable of learning trajectories and manueuvers that can enable them to literally fly through hoops -- and other confined spaces.

When the robots are formed into a flotilla, they calculate (a hundred times a second) and maintain a safe distance between them. He showed a video of 20 robots flying in a variety of formations -- and moving through obstacles -- inches from each other without interfering with the stability of their neighbors.

To cap his presentation, he showed a video, created by his students in three days, of nine flying robots playing the James Bond theme on musical instruments...