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AI Science Technology

Flying Robots Flip, Swarm and Move In Formation At UPenn 122

Posted by samzenpus
from the I-for-one-welcome-our-new-tiny-copter-overlords dept.
techgeek0279 writes "The University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory has released a video of flying nano quadrotor robots. Inspired by swarming habits in nature, these agile robots avoid obstructions and perform complex maneuvers as a group."

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Flying Robots Flip, Swarm and Move In Formation At UPenn

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  • by jhoegl (638955) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:13PM (#38910689)
    In one of those clips, I imagined "space invaders", in real life.
    Would be fun to play space invaders with swarms of things.
    • by StikyPad (445176)

      More "fun" once they figure out how to arm them with tasers.

    • by mdmkolbe (944892) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:32PM (#38910823)

      Would be fun to play space invaders with swarms of things.

      ... until they start carrying live ammo.

      • Re:Freakin awesome (Score:4, Insightful)

        by TheInternetGuy (2006682) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:26PM (#38911121)
        In fact they are probably so cheap that you only need to load them with plastic explosives and send your little swarm of kamikaze robots to rain down on your enemy. I cant put my finger on it, but there is something very angry birds about this.
      • by antdude (79039)

        Then, call up Fry to fight them! [google.com] ;)

      • "until they start carrying live ammo."
        Think of the weponization potential! both offensive & defensive, avoidance strategies would be nearly impossible due to the large number of objects in close proximity & constantly in motion.

        Swarms of tiny, cheap, flying bombs!

    • by Naso540 (2304414)
      Look out Blue Angels! This is pretty cool.
    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      In one of those clips, I imagined "space invaders", in real life.

      So I wasn't the only one? (I think it's the positioning of the rotors - they have the same basic shape as the invaders.)

      If they're cheap enough, something like this would be fun for skeet shooting. Imagine the challenge of clay pigeons that can change trajectory on a dime!

      It'd also be great for military training, too...

      Might be because I just watched the Terminator movies again recently, but all of the uses I can seem to come up for these robots seem to involve shooting them with a high powered gun or rifle

    • Oblig. Futurama reference (quote probably inaccurate): "Sir! We're taking heavy damages! What are your orders?" "Lower altitude! Reverse direction! Increase speed!"
    • by Spamalope (91802)

      In one of those clips, I imagined "space invaders", in real life.

      I was thinking Galaga, especially with the back flip trick.

      Where is my nerf gun?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    omg if someone doesnt make them reenact space invaders ill lose faith in humanity

  • Amazing... (Score:5, Funny)

    by stevenfuzz (2510476) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:17PM (#38910721)
    Until they realize they can band together to form a large man-eating mega bot.
  • by artor3 (1344997) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:18PM (#38910725)

    I know we don't have the collective willpower to skip the joke this time, so let's just get it out of the way.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:07PM (#38911017)
      I for one, welcome those who strive to save us from "I for one, welcome ... " jokes...
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I know we don't have the collective willpower to skip the joke this time...

      You patently don't, but why not give the rest of us the benefit of the doubt?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        'cause maybe he knows us better than that. personally i thought it was a nice spin.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Imagine a beowulf cluster of them... um... doh.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I know we don't have the collective willpower to skip the joke this time, so let's just get it out of the way.

      I, for one, will mourn you when our swarming robotic overlords decide to punish you for this disrespect.

  • by Eightbitgnosis (1571875) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:19PM (#38910729) Homepage
    I see no way in which this technology could be used to invade the privacy of citizens across the world
  • There is one thing I hate about stuff like this. It makes everything I do look so mundane. Congrats to those of you working on that team!
  • by icebike (68054) * on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:20PM (#38910739)

    Cool stuff, but it needs a link to the home page: https://www.grasp.upenn.edu/ [upenn.edu]

    Very cool (and creepy) crawler bot video on the homepage.

    These flying bots remind me of you average Alaskan mosquito.

    • by 0100010001010011 (652467) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:19PM (#38911075)

      UPenn does a LOT with these quad rotors. They seem to have some pretty smart grad students working on this in research.

      One thing to point out is that this stuff doesn't always go as planned. Their Outtake Reel [youtube.com] is pretty entertaining from "Oops" to "Oh shit there goes another few propellers."

    • by TheLink (130905) on Friday February 03, 2012 @08:25AM (#38913853) Journal

      These flying bots remind me of you average Alaskan mosquito.

      Those bots are not even half as advanced as a mosquito (and far from houseflies) though. Mosquitoes can fly for one to four HOURS: http://www.sove.org/Journal%20PDF/June%202004/Kaufmann.pdf [sove.org]

      Mosquitoes can navigate and orient in dynamic environments without requiring external cameras and computers ( http://www.vicon.com/company/documents/UPENNGraspLab.pdf [vicon.com] ). They can find their own sources of fuel, and avoid active and passive threats. They can even produce new mosquitoes in a few days/weeks without a factory.

      They can get confused by bright/UV lights, but it's still quite impressive considering their brains are so tiny.

      So these bots are interesting, but there's plenty of room for improvements :). We're still not in danger of Skynet bots yet...

      • by Lashat (1041424)

        "Mosquitoes can navigate and orient in dynamic environments without requiring external cameras and computers "

        That is really the big one IMHO.

        The video and acheivement is very cool. The video showcases challenging pre-programmed flight planning, software development, computer control system design, and device building.

        I wonder how close are they to having the autonomous versions of the quadcopters pull this off?

  • another good idea turned into a wepon.
  • by Gabrill (556503) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:24PM (#38910771)

    Formation does not equal swarm. A swarm of insects doesn't have a known predetermined formation, nor does a flock of birds (not talking about duck v's). Impressive flight characteristics and preprogrammed flight formations, but I don't see anything that suggests you can tell it a destination in the wild and the group will be able to navigate there around random trees, buildings and other obstacles. For example the brick wall pass did not need the whole swarm to pass through the one window. A natural swarm would have flowed around as well as through, because each member would make an effectively random choice about which path to take.

    • I believe this is a super swarm; It's just bad-assier than a regular swarm.
    • by icebike (68054) *

      Formation does not equal swarm.

      Formation is from of a swarm.

      A great number of things or persons, especially in motion. [reference.com]

        Insects don't get the right to define human words in my book.

      • by Kozz (7764) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:29PM (#38911129)

        I think what the GP was trying to say was that it wasn't displaying what is sometimes called "emergent behavior". In this kind of tech, when we discuss "swarm" behavior, we're usually talking about individual entities that don't have very many rulesets except for things like "don't hit your neighbor", "don't hit obstacles", and "match your neighbor's approximate direction and velocity". You can see this in swarms of insects or birds (for example), and of course they're not communicating with each other on their planned trajectories, but the emergent behavior is fascinating.

        (disclaimer: I'm no expert in this field, I just read lots of slashdot and others. someone will pipe up and correct my mistakes, which I welcome)

    • Formation does not equal swarm.

      Just like drone != robot. Language changes. Words change. Even in here, part of the high holy of geekspace...how many times have we seen the USAF drones (large RC aircraft) referred to as 'robots'?

      'Robot' implies some independent decision making abilities. Or at least it used to.
    • by recharged95 (782975) on Friday February 03, 2012 @12:41AM (#38912109) Journal

      Bingo, they are presenting coordinated motion instead. They are close to a swarm, they are independent, but not sure if they are still commanded by a central computer (off-board), which means it's not a swarm by a mile. In hindsight, if they are playing back a script on-board each copter, it would be considered modeling swarm formation, but nothing close to flocking (there needs to be a leader quad).

  • For some reason, their hum sounds ominous to me. It's like something from a distopian future.

  • by John Hasler (414242) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @08:58PM (#38910965) Homepage

    This is not a swarm of robots cooperating. It's a single computer remotely operating a bunch of quadrotors. Impressive, but not what you imply that it is.

    • It was impressive when they did it a couple of years ago with a single quad rotor. Its not any more impressive they have 16 of them - its still the same command/control technology.
      • Do you not realize that collision avoidance becomes rather more difficult when the things you're trying to avoid colliding with are themselves moving? They're not setting up a pattern to fly in, the computer is calculating trajectories for each robot such that they won't interfere with each other at any point in the future. A rather taller order.

        • Well, yes this is true, but it's not exactly an unsolved problem.
        • Yes, they're applying existing algorithms to their existing system. I didn't say it wasn't impressive, I said it was no more impressive than their first system. It would be impressive if they did away with the external optical tracking system and used something that wasn't so line-of-sight and requiring the quad copters to stay in the room surrounded by numerous cameras.
          • A lot of the algorithms that get used for formation control are designed, inherently, from a distributed point of view -- meaning, they're based just on relative distances, etc, between the different quadrotors, and could run locally on them. However, when it comes time to actually implement this stuff, it's easiest to just run everything on a PC and use a mocap system, since that's usually viewed as a sufficient proof of concept within the community. There are groups in robotics who have strapped Kinects

        • by Laser Dan (707106) on Thursday February 02, 2012 @10:28PM (#38911503)

          Do you not realize that collision avoidance becomes rather more difficult when the things you're trying to avoid colliding with are themselves moving? They're not setting up a pattern to fly in, the computer is calculating trajectories for each robot such that they won't interfere with each other at any point in the future. A rather taller order.

          What collision avoidance?
          They are all externally controlled, and the controller knows their position to within a few mm due to the very expensive vicon system they are using.
          All they are doing is moving along preplanned and precalculated trajectories.

          As a robotics researcher I'm not really impressed.
          External control and localisation removes 99% of of the difficulty of the problem.
          It also makes this research useless for any actual real-world function, it's only good for fancy demos in their specially prepared room.
          If they did that with only onboard sensors and control, THEN I would be impressed.

          • The part of the GRASP Lab's quadrotor work that has impressed me the most is simply the controllers they have for their quadrotors. They're not like wheeled robots in that respect; they're not even stable, passively. The lab's earlier videos (e.g., "Aggressive flight maneuvers") are still very cool. Certainly not dealing with perception parts of the problem, but that wasn't the point; the controllers were.

            Of course, that's past research. What about this work? I assume it builds on those earlier control

          • It strikes me that they could all be programmed like "boids" - then one is designated leader. If the leader crashes then another takes over. All the others (non-leaders) act like boids unless they get designated leader. That way they could maybe mimic flocking behaviour ? They all "know" the destination but don't act on it unless made leader. I'm no robotics expert and no doubt this might be stupidly hard to do - but if achievable that would be pretty cool. I can visualise how I might do it in softwar
    • It's a very cool toy. I want one.
  • by slimjim8094 (941042) <slashdot3@@@justconnected...net> on Thursday February 02, 2012 @09:06PM (#38911011)

    Hey all - These guys work down the hall from me. I don't work with them, but I've seen the lab.

    Basically, it seems like it's a motion capture setup with IR cameras and some mostly off-the-shelf software to track 3D position (standard mocap stuff, which I have worked with). I think each drone has an IR emitter on it (you can see it in some shots since the camera has no IR filter). The novel thing here is the algorithmic work required in keeping track of each drone and planning out all the trajectories relative to the other bots (see the figure 8 demo at the end).

    It's not going to fly through your window any time soon, unless you can fit a Kinect and some serious horsepower on there without going over the weight budget. But there's no reason to think that the algorithms wouldn't work to control the local bot, with some sort of ad-hoc mesh network for the synchronization.

    • It's the kind of thing that makes you want to work with a group like this, just because it's so freaking cool. I can't imagine the amount of time spent to get these things to this level of organization, even for this short video.

    • While everybody is complaining Google will snatch these guys up and employ them to direct multiple autonomous vehicles down our highways.

      Adhoc mesh network indeed. It's called GPS augmented with cell towers.

      Their vehicles already do the local collision detection.

    • by DarthVain (724186)

      Yes you can tell by the environment they fly them in. First thing I noticed (other than the creepy flying things) was the drop sheet and the attempts to make a uniform environment, presumably to help the tracking system focus on the targets.

      May I suggest next time they use GREEN drop sheets, and then project some interesting images on the green screens! :)

      • First thing I noticed (other than the creepy flying things) was the drop sheet and the attempts to make a uniform environment, presumably to help the tracking system focus on the targets.

        That, and to cover up all the crap they've got before their shiny video. :p

  • Whoever makes a quad-rotor capable of carrying a pizza and two-liter bottle five miles will make a fortune competing with anyone who still delivers pizza in cars.

    More than that, though: when we can switch from ground cars to robotic VTOL transportation for our daily commute, we're going to save a hell of a lot of energy, money, and lives. The hardware and flight control is a solved problem. All we need now is peer-to-peer traffic negotiation, and long-distance navigation.

    -jcr

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by viperidaenz (2515578)
      ... because vertical flight is so much more energy efficent, cheaper and safer than rolling along the ground ...
      • by jcr (53032)

        Yes, by quite a large margin. Ground cars are so dangerous that we consider it normal to have fatalities every day in every major city. Send a pizza with a flying robot, and you're not sending a ton of glass and steel along for the ride.

        -jcr

        • My country is currently sitting at less than 1 death per day, 290 in the last 12 months, 362 the previous 12 months. As far as I'm aware none of those deaths were pizza deliveries. Most deaths are contributed to fatigue, alcohol and speeding. Virtually all are caused by human error. So yes, it would help to remove the human from the equation but flying has nothing to do with it except make mechanical faults fatal - most car crashes don't kill anyone, most aeroplane crashes kill everyone inside.
          • by jcr (53032)

            .. and how many aircraft fatalities have there been in your country in that year where 290 people died on the road? Even without robotic piloting, QED.

            -jcr

            • 0. The same number of fatalities of passengers in taxis, limos, busses and trains. Since it is ridiculous to compare the safety of vehicles driven by "professional" drivers and those driven by random people. I say "professional" because nearly anyone can drive a limo or taxi, no special training required.
    • by Baloroth (2370816)

      We need that and viable human-lift capable VTOL transportation vehicles. Might be a slight problem, there.

  • Is this the same group that was throwing these quad rotors in a video on /. a year or two ago?
  • I can see this ending only in tears.

  • Does anybody know of a good way for me to build my own? I've seen designs for larger ones, but these small quadrotors look like they would be a bit easier for me to work with. I'm more of a software guy than a robotics guy, so designing my own from scratch would probably be a bit above my skill level. Any tips would be greatly appreciated.
  • If these things can auto-land pads and recharge themselves, this would make a great Art installation!

    I know that this technology will lead to some real life applications (like if they can be used to jointly move large objects. Maybe they can do things that even skilled human operators cannot and they may make "sky cranes" more practical). Still they are undeniably cool to watch so maybe they could be used in some kinetic 3D Art piece.

    Or if not Art, why not Advertising? Get enough of them, put LEDs on the

    • Jon How's group did this (see here [mit.edu]). I've seen some of the videos; a quick Youtube search isn't turning them up, but if you dig a bit more you'll probably find them.
      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Thanks, although for just an "Art" piece such quick battery swap isn't required! ;)

        Surveillance and other applications would probably find this essential.

  • Nano implies these are 10^-9 scale, so the question is, which quadrotors were they looking at, exactly, that these are nano?
    • by larys (2559815)
      Just a wild guess, but could it perhaps be part of the name? For the same reason that the Nissan Leaf isn't an actual leaf, there could be quite a bit of artistic license in this choice of name. I only say this because normally people don't name something "15in computer" or "1-cubic-foot ottoman"...also, though the link in the text isn't capitalized, in the title at the top of the video "A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors," the part 'Nano Quadrotors' is capitalized...so it could be their name...?
    • by aglider (2435074)

      NANO is cool. Those pesky toys would like to be cool. So they need to be NANO.

  • what comes to mind when I saw the video was the phrase: "resistance is futile, you will be assimilated!" That buzzing sound of the motors could certainly become a bit ominous if the swarm of those robots is large enough to block out some sunlight. All in all, it has some wonderful potential -- for surveillance, fun, problem-solving in the field, and intergalactic domination...
  • In this case it just re-enforces the need to own a shotgun - 16ga with birdshot

  • by db10 (740174)

    My ex worked on stuff like this on a nasa fellowship. It involved real-time formations for satellites using some kind of sensor feedback loop using control theory.

  • ... none!
    How can they fly? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
    Those (not really) nano robots look more like a very expensive toy. IMHO.

  • They're not nano-sized robots, they're hand-sized.
    And they're nothing new, it's just your average quadropter. You can buy that kind of thing (or just the parts) in any good shop on the internet.

  • The motion capture system is cheating, imho. Mocap machines can localize a point to mm accuracy. In the real world you are not going to have a localization system with that kind of accuracy. Localization, not control, is the hard problem.

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