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Flying robot swarms the future of search and rescue

posted 19 Mar 2012, 15:43 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 19 Mar 2012, 15:45 ]

Their hovering robots have become a huge hit on YouTube where they can be seen playing the James Bond theme on musical instruments, but the researchers behind the University of Pennsylvania's Quadrotor robot program say their intent is serious. The autonomous flying robots are being designed to one day take part in search and rescue missions and a host of other tasks. Sharon Reich has more.

REUTERS/TED/UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA/KMEL ROBOTOICS/ KURTIS SENSENIG, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA  - They look - and sound - like something out of a James bond film, but their capabilities surpass even 007's imagination.

The Nano Quadrotors are light and agile enough to move and grasp objects in mid-air. They can turn, flip and fly in formation. And while they're good with picks and drum sticks - University of Pennsylvania researcher Daniel Mellinger says they're really designed to save lives.


DANIEL MELLINGER, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA RESEARCHER AND CO-PRESIDENT OF KMEL ROBOTICS, SAYING:

"The ability to put a camera onboard these vehicles and collect information is a very powerful one, particularly powerful in situations that are dangerous. So you can get information in a situation without ever having to put a human in harm's way and that's very powerful. So you can imagine a scenario after a natural disaster where you send up a large team of them each with a camera and they collect and gather information and create situational awareness about what's going on in the scene and then deliver that information to first responders and then respond to the situation appropriately."


Mellinger and his research partner Alex Kushleyev have built several versions of the aerial vehicle using materials readily available at a hardware store. But their main objective has been to create machines that can fly in a swarm without crashing into one another.


Each robot carries built- in magnets and sensors - which work with a motion capture system. Infrared light is directed toward markers on each vehicle, which is then reflected back into cameras and a computer program which tracks the markers to determines the vehicle's location.


There is also an off-board base station that communicates via a software algorithm with the vehicle, directing its flight.


 ALEX KUSHLEYEV, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA RESEARCHER AND CO-PRESIDENT OF KMEL ROBOTICS, SAYING:

"The cool thing that we want to do is eventually transfer these algorithms outdoors. It's currently very difficult because of outside factors like wind and weather but at least if we can learn as much about the vehicles indoors as we can, we'll be able to better control them outdoors."


The team has conducted several tests to see how effectively the vehicles can work as a team without flying into one another. One of the most encouraging involves the use of grippers and magnets.


DANIEL MELLINGER, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA RESEARCHER AND CO-PRESIDENT OF KMEL ROBOTICS, SAYING:

"What the vehicle can do is take its grippers pick up a part and fly around in the world and fly to the place where that part needs to be put in place and place it where it needs to go. Since the magnets are in the parts, the magnets can actually pull the part into place and the vehicle can let go and fly to get the next part. Using this infrastructure we've used teams of 3 vehicles to build structures containing up to 40 pieces."


Professor Vijay Kumar of the university's GRASP lab has been working with the team and recently introduced the robots at a widely viewed lecture. The video has brought the team's work to the attention of a global internet audience. Kumar says he thinks people are simply fascinated by the entertainment value and possibilities of these aerial robots.


 VIJAY KUMAR, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA PROFESSOR OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING, SAYING:

"We are interested in pushing the autonomy front. We want to have these robots to be able to think for themselves and relieve a lot of the burden that falls on human operators."


And that could be in the fields of search and rescue, construction or just household convenience and who knows, a starring role in the next Bond adventure may be something more than a flight of fancy.


Sharon Reich, Reuters

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