Look to the Skies: TED Talk Showcases "Aerial Robots"


By Tim Moran

Look out, because autonomous agile aerial robots are taking to the sky! At least, they did at a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, where Vijay Kumar, deputy dean for Education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and creator of that school's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, let loose a talk on his airborne creations.

In his lab, Kumar and his team build flying quadrotors: small (they fit on your hand), agile robots that swarm, sense each other and form ad hoc teams. Kumar suggests that they could, ultimately, be used for construction, surveying disasters, reconnaissance, and more.

"Agile aerial robots like this have many applications," said Kumar. "You can send them inside buildings as first responders to look for intruders, maybe look for biochemical leak ... [or they] can be used for transporting cargo." While this is one of those things that has to be seen to be believed and understood (and you can, at http://www.ted.com/talks/vijay_kumar_robots_that_fly_and_cooperate.html), Kumar explained--and showed--in his talk how these robots are able to move together in eerie formation, tightening themselves into perfect battalions, even filling in the gap when one of their own drops out.

According to Kumar, these helicopters have four rotors, are roughly a meter or so in size, and weigh several pounds. They are fitted out with sensors and processors, and they can fly indoors without a GPS. As shown in the video that accompanied Kumar's presentation, the robot helicopters can perform a 360 degree flip in less than half a second; multiple flips take a little more time. And no matter how you throw it, the robot recovers and returns. At the end of the talk, to demonstrate what he and his team had accomplished, Kumar showed a video of nine robots playing six different instruments: They played the theme from James Bond. When playing music, these autonomous, agile aerial robots seem more like "The Beetles."