Engineers at the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab, Daniel Mellinger, Alex Kushleyev and Vijay Kumar, demonstrate the agility of their autonomous quadrotors by programming them to plunk out the James Bond theme music on a room full of instruments. Humans assign the robots a location in space and a time to get there, but the robots have to figure out how to navigate from point to point without colliding in midair. Kurtis Sensenig produced this dramatic video of the performance.
On their website, the engineers describe the technology that powers these meticulously coordinated flying musicians:
Kumar, along with GRASP Lab members Daniel Melligner and Alex Kushleyev, are helping scientists and engineers create smarter, faster, and more flexible robots by mimicking the swarming behaviors of birds, fish and insects. Figuring out how to move in unison without crashing into obstacles, or one another, is a critical skill for robot teams to develop, especially since they may one day be used to survey landscapes, build structures, or even play music.
In this demonstration, the “stage” is in a room fitted with infrared lights and cameras. The nano quads all have reflectors on their struts, which allows the camera system to plot their exact position and relay that information wirelessly to each unit.
Lab members can then assign each unit a series of waypoints in three-dimensional space that must be reached at an exact time. In this case, those times and places translate into notes on a keyboard or a strum of a guitar. Figuring out how to get from waypoint to waypoint most efficiently and without disturbing their neighbors is up to the robots.
This isn't the first time the quadrotors have found viral success -- they earned millions of views for this video, in which they perform feats of coordination like flying in a figure eight:
A blog post about Kumar's TED Talk on the GRASP website explains that these little hovering robots have the potential to do vast amounts of good:
These robots are far more than novelties. They can be first responders in disasters. They can help with construction, or cooporate with other robots to move large objects. They can also do search and rescue — or mapping nuclear radiation levels after a nuclear accident.
Dynamics of the quadrotor is defined by mathematics in twelve-dimensional space. But there is a mathematical trick to make it tractable — and it can be done in a fraction of a second, even with moving obstacles. The result is breathtaking — a flying robot dodging moving Hula hoops in a scene that, if it were in a movie we’d all assume it took months to plan and film, but it being done in real-time.
Kumar takes inspiration from nature in many ways. Tiny desert ants can move giant objects (say, a section of a fig) by grouping and moving the fig collectively. Kumar and his team have built programs for the quadrotor that mimic that behavior, and allows teams of them to build extraordinarily complex objects together.
For more videos from the University of Pennsylvania, visit the YouTube channel.