The General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater) has produced a number of fascinating experiments lately focused on the uses of quadrotor helicopter robots. Four-propeller aircraft designs were popularized in the 1920s and 1930s to help solve some of the persistent issues with vertical flight (i.e., torque-control). In recent years the quadrotor design has seen a resurgence of popularity in consumer hobbyist applications and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) research thanks to a few key advantages this platform possesses (Wikipedia):
“First, quadrotors do not require mechanical linkages to vary the rotor blade pitch angle as they spin. This simplifies the design and maintenance of the vehicle. Second, the use of four rotors allows each individual rotor to have a smaller diameter than the equivalent helicopter rotor, allowing them to possess less kinetic energy during flight. This reduces the damage caused should the rotors hit anything. For small-scale UAVs, this makes the vehicles safer for close interaction. Some small-scale quadrotors have frames that enclose the rotors, permitting flights through more challenging environments, with lower risk of damaging the vehicle or its surroundings.”
As you can see from the videos below, there is a lot of promise to this research when it is paired with technology that can simulate the group dynamics such as those found in a starling murmuration. A team over at Harvard University is also exploring swarm technology with their Kilobot platform. Starlings have had a few million years to perfect their method of flight but I can see that human ingenuity is catching up fast.
It is easy to imagine autonomous robotic search-and-rescue, surveillance, or construction teams in the relatively near future that can do a number of tasks more efficiently and safely than humans. Obviously there are also a number of military applications when you begin to think about nanocopters equipped with small arms, tactical explosives, or laser/GPS targeting systems for larger munitions. Either way, I think we can expect to see some amazing things from this line of robotic innovation.
- Geek-out Sunday part XXI: evolution meets autotune (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XX: science party tricks (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XIX: geeks vs. nerds (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XVIII: help desk humor (marshallstanton.com)
- Geek-out Sunday part XVII: fire eating (marshallstanton.com)