Vijay Kumar, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania, showed the more than 1,300 attendees at last week’s TED conference several videos in which fleets of tiny flying robots performed a series of intricate manuevers, working together on tasks without colliding or interfering with each others’ flightworthiness.
It seemed that, at least for some in the audience, a bridge had been crossed into a new era of technology, one that could change the way we think about robots and their application to such fields as construction, shipping and responding to emergencies.
Kumar’s devices (he calls them “Autonomous Agile Aerial Robots”) cooperated on building simple structures and showed they were capable of entering a building for the first time and quickly constructing a map that would allow for assessment and response to a structural collapse or fire. The robots are capable of learning trajectories and maneuvers that can enable them to literally fly through hoops — and other confined spaces.
When the robots are formed into a flotilla, they calculate (a hundred times a second) and maintain a safe distance between them. He showed a video of 20 robots flying in a variety of formations — and moving through obstacles — inches from each other without interfering with the stability of their neighbors.
TED began in the 1980s with the intention of focusing on “Technology, entertainment and design,” and its conferences typically are sold out, attracting an audience of high achievers willing to pay $7,500 to attend. TED, a nonprofit, makes many of the talks freely available on its site.