Actually, this building behavior is pretty complex. Another design team has done something similar. A group of five somewhat larger flying robot quadrotors assembled a six-meter tower made of 1,500 polystyrene foam blocks at France's FRAC Centre. (You can access a video here.)
The lack of technical information from the GRASP Lab may be because it is participating in the Scalable sWarms of Autonomous Robots and Mobile Sensors (SWARMS) project, which has military-related goals and is associated with the Army Research Office and the Army Institute of Collaborative Biotechnology. SWARMS combines artificial intelligence, control theory, robotics, systems engineering, and biology to apply biologically inspired models of swarm behavior to large networked groups of autonomous vehicles, such as deploying them to carry out a predetermined mission and to respond as a group to high-level management commands. These robots could also be used in rescue missions after natural disasters.
The KMel Robotics Website consists of a single page and a photo of the quadrotors, but it promises more information. Along with the 5.5 million other viewers of the latest YouTube swarming video, I hope it comes soon.
I love these examples of research that borrows behaviors or materials qualities from Mother Nature. I get the benefit of the swarm approach for military applications. What other more mainstream/commercial applications might this behavior/capability benefit when it comes to use of robotics?
I like the biomicmickry apps, too. I think they're fun, and show how clever we humans can be, imitating Nature (tongue firmly in cheek).
To answer your question, although undisclosed military apps appear to be the main ones for these little robots (which sound like a bunch of big mosquitos in the video), other possibilities include post-disaster rescue work.
Definitely not a nano design by any stretch of the imagination. But it would be interesting to learn more about the fundamentals. They seem to fly with a great deal of agility. Curious about the controls. Any more information available on this yet, Ann?
Janine Benyus would love to showcase this video for her biomimicry demonstrations. This is really an inspiring work and will send the pulse raising for the young engineers. This is the right combination of design, art, symmetry and above all clinical precision. Thanks for this article
The GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania has its own Web site: https://www.grasp.upenn.edu/, where readers can find more information about the swarms of airborne robotic modules and other fascinating projects. It's interesting that the lab used the Mica2 "motes" from Crossbow Technology to communicate among themselves. Unfortunately, the company gave up that aspect of communications, although many other companies manufacture wireless-sensor devices.
Companies such as Texas Instruments and Microchip Technology have their own protocols; SimpliciTI and MiWi respectively, or you can use the basic IEEE 802.15.4 transceivers alone or with a standard ZigBee protocol. The latter protocol, though, requires a lot of software overhead.
Chuck, I agree, the apparently instantaneous communication is awesome. Jon, thanks for digging up that info from GRASP, which comes from a TED talk given after I filed this story:
http://www.ted.com/talks/vijay_kumar_robots_that_fly_and_cooperate.html There's quite a lot of detail in the TED talk. The swarming technology, such as the protocol created by one of their grad students, is especially interesting, as well as the control algorithms that help the quadrotors create maps and figure out how to navigate obstacles. So is the fact that GRASP is working on different sizes of drones, not just the little quadrotors. I think the transportation, building and post-disaster apps are the most interesting.
If these quadrotors can all lift on the same light-weight carbon fiber beam, they should be able to generate enough net lift to carry objects. I wonder how many it would take to rescue a human from a mid-stream car top. Lithium polymer batteries give amazing power to weight capability.
I've proposed to friends that these would be great for seeking out and eradicating the Python problem in Florida. Equiped with sensors to search out the Python's and a poison dart they could do quickly what would take us years, if not decades, of dedicated hard work.
I've also considered these for garden patrol, not to kill the offending insects, just to annoy them so they go somewhere else.
There's a lot more info in here--finally!--from the head of the GRASP Lab Vijay Kumar. Before this was posted last week, there was almost no info on how these little guys work, or even what their capabilities are.
The robots use some kind of continuously adjusted mapping functions to locate themselves in space and explore unknown environments, as Kumar states in the TED talk video:
http://www.ted.com/talks/vijay_kumar_robots_that_fly_and_cooperate.html I don't know if that technology is based on SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping), but I wouldn't be surprised. It's pretty popular for this type of application.
BTW, the robots in the story are the same robots from the U of PA GRASP Lab that play the James Bond theme in that video.
It's funny how we used to think about how much memory it would take for such a task and know it was totally unrealistic. Now, it is reality. We have the memory and processing power. Now we just have to work out the "bugs."
Warren, I hear you. The huge advances in semiconductor shrinks and system-on-chip have made processors and memory capable of such feats, as well as big reductions in sensor size and rise in abilities because of MEMS technology.
Hey, oldtimer8080, I did read PREY. It was very scary. In fact, I thought of that book when I saw the first video on these little robots, although I think they are also cool. I hadn't thought about the invasion of private property issues, good point. Your 'tude sounds like the 'tude of many of my neighbors up here in the mountains.
Jack, wait 'til you see the much smaller flying bug in an upcoming robot slideshow: it's about the size of a quarter. I think that one will fit under the door. Not only that, but these are self-assembling: shades of Crichton!
Jack, most of the swarming and flying robots, along with a lot of other robot research, seem to be funded by the military, usually DARPA. The one I mentioned also appears to be aimed at military applications.
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