Professor Vijay Kumar, teaching in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, calls them Autonomous Agile Aerial Robots or “Flying Quadrotors,” also known to researchers as drones and UAV’s. Kumar and his students have already attracted a big audience on YouTube.
Kumar researches the control and coordination of multi-robot formations and says there is much potential for aerial robots, to be sent inside buildings as first responders, to map out the 3D layout of a structure in real time, to search for intruders, to transport cargo.
In the video of his presentation at TED, Kumar explains the basis of his technology; the drones “live in a 12-dimensional space… We take this curved 12-dimensional space and transform it into a flat four-dimensional space.” The robots have motion capture cameras that tell the robot where it is at 100 times per second. Surprisingly there is no GPS used in the technology. The motion capture cameras, along with a laser scanner, builds a real-time map of its environment, so there is no global coordinate system. The coordinate system is based on the robot, where it is, and what it is looking at.
Kumar says, “As an academic, we’re always trained to be able to jump through hoops to raise funding for our labs, so now we get our robots to do that.” Kumar finished the presentation and wowed the audience by playing a video of the drones performing music, from the James Bond movie themes, a project created by two of Kumar’s students who orchestrated nine robots playing six instruments. It’s fascinating to watch.