Flying machines are YouTube sensation

Mar 22, 2011 By Mike Unger
Have you seen the videos of those amazing flying machines?

(PhysOrg.com) -- The latest YouTube sensation isn’t a puppy that dances to Lady Gaga or a kitten that opens beer bottles. By using unmanned aerial vehicles called quadrotors, two Ph.D. candidates at the School of Engineering and Applied Science have built an autonomous airborne construction crew able to build small structures—and in the process they’ve captured the attention of millions.

Mechanical engineering students Quentin Lindsey, 26, and Daniel Mellinger, 25, wrote algorithms that enable the to discern which specific building piece to pick up, and where it should be placed.

“This is a paradigm changer,” says Penn Engineering Deputy Dean for Education Vijay Kumar, the students’ advisor. “If you look at robots, they do things from the ground up. Think about how the military uses robots on the ground. For the first time we’re able to build things from the top down. This is really a completely new capability being developed.”

Lindsey and Mellinger began writing the algorithms in Penn’s General Robotics, , Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab in November. Just three months later, the quadrotors were able to autonomously construct cubic structures, towers, pyramids and walls.

“We tell it what structure to build, then we have a method that figures out the assembly plan—basically a list of parts and where they go,” Mellinger says. “Then the quadrotors line up and quadrotor one picks up part one and puts it in place, quadrotor two picks up part two and puts it in place, and so on.”

The quadrotors “know” where each part is located, and they’re able to grasp it using a gripper, the students explain. The part, made from plastic or PVC pipe, is attached to the body of the structure using a magnet.

“Obviously you’re not going to go to a construction site right now and see these parts, but these are parts you can modify and conceivably scale up and make them into real parts that you could actually build things with,” Lindsey says.

The project is an initial foray into building more complicated structures with quadrotors and robots.

“Full-size helicopters now are used in real construction projects,” Mellinger says. “To think you might be able to add autonomy to that with robotic quadrotors might not be too far off in the future.”

In the meantime, the video “Construction with Quadrotor Teams” has created quite a stir. Just over two minutes long, it shows a squad of Penn quadrotors snatching up construction parts and building a mini-tower in a lab. The quadrotors sound like a swarm of very intense bees, and watching them go about their work is captivating.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The video has received more than 400,000 hits on YouTube, and television’s popular faux newscaster Stephen Colbert recently featured it during the “ThreatDown” segment of his show “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.

“For years I have been warning about the threat of robots rising up against their human masters,” Colbert said during the broadcast. “Scientists have reached a new milestone in our enslavement. Flying drones. Today they’re constructing a three-foot tower, tomorrow it’s a sprawling prison for three-foot prisoners.”

While the media attention is flattering and fun, Kumar says it shouldn’t mask the serious science behind the project.

“These robots are completely autonomous, they are not being [remotely controlled],” he explains. “We want to fly into spaces where humans either don’t want to fly or cannot fly. If you can imagine a hostage setting in a building, I can send these guys into the building and they can be the eyes and the ears of rescue personnel outside. I can go into a damaged building after a natural disaster and help victims.”

The researchers say the project may also be a precursor to autonomous robotic construction.

“In our lab we have a lot of experiments and projects that are ground based and we have a lot of experiments that are air based,” Lindsey says. “But we don’t have any that are combined. This is one of the few times where you can actually put the two different kinds of robots together. This is just the first step.”

A successful and satisfying step, Mellinger says. “It’s always fun as an engineer to think about solving a problem and then see it work. It’s just a bonus that it’s gotten so much attention and people like it so much.”

Explore further: Q&A: Drones might help explain how tornadoes form

Related Stories

Modern society made up of all types

Nov 04, 2010

Modern society has an intense interest in classifying people into ‘types’, according to a University of Melbourne Cultural Historian, leading to potentially catastrophic life-changing outcomes for those typed – ...

Recommended for you

Q&A: Drones might help explain how tornadoes form

13 hours ago

Researchers say they have collected promising weather data by flying instrument-laden drones into big Western and Midwestern storms. Now, they want to expand the project in hopes of learning more about how ...

First steps for Hector the robot stick insect

Dec 16, 2014

A research team at Bielefeld University has succeeded in teaching the only robot of its kind in the world how to walk. Its first steps have been recorded in a video. The robot is called Hector, and its construction ...

Getting bot responders into shape

Dec 16, 2014

Sandia National Laboratories is tackling one of the biggest barriers to the use of robots in emergency response: energy efficiency.

Robot 'shadow hand'

Dec 12, 2014

Picking up an apple is one of those jobs requiring the delicate touch of the human hand – or its robotic counterpart.

Two robots, one challenge, endless possibility

Dec 11, 2014

To the theme song of "2001: A Space Odyssey," a robot with a twisty spine rolled toward Thomas Rosenbaum, the new president of the California Institute of Technology, on Oct. 24, as he stood on a stage at ...

User comments : 8

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bob_B
not rated yet Mar 22, 2011
This is old news and the same video.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Mar 22, 2011
And why arent things like these flying around inside the fukushima reactors, dragging hoses to empty cooling ponds and taking pictures and telemetry and whatnot?

I alway thought construction sites were good places for robotics- excavators, pavers, concrete machines, just about anything. They could also, by themselves, earn WAGES and pay TAXES and their own maintenance, thereby replacing revenues lost by the humans whose jobs they stole. Seriously. This bookkeeping adjustment could generate significant revenues. It can be done already with existing machines.
RobAid_dot_com
not rated yet Mar 22, 2011
Because of the radiation which affects sensors and electronics. The housing should be protected by dense (and heavy) materials to prevent it, making flying of these small bots much less feasible.
Newbeak
not rated yet Mar 22, 2011
Sadly,they said on CNN that they can't be used in areas with intense radiation,as it kills the electronics and cameras pretty quickly.Robots have to be heavily shielded to have a useful lifetime,and of course,that limits use to ground based robots.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Mar 23, 2011
These flyers look cheap enough to be expendable.

I'll tell ya, wiki has everything, it's like the walmart of the Internet:
http://en.wikiped...ardening

-They better get busy. These environments will only become more common. Perhaps this is only one more of the (un)anticipated advantages of a nuclear accident in the country which is the center of robotics r&d? Why were the reactors located above the tsunami but the critical generators were not? Why no redundant outside power lines? The major thing which would destroy a reactor- loss of cooling- and there were no failsafe systems better protected than the reactors themselves.
YSLGuru
1 / 5 (1) Mar 24, 2011
Realy makes me wish I could go back to college. This is the kind of learning that is fun and is exactly why its restricted to collegiate level. You'll never see public education providng learning thats actually fun, too many politics to satisfy.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) Apr 02, 2011
Yeah, we need one of these aremed with a pistol and a hand grenade to track down Osama Bin Laden.

Unfortunately, the terrorists are more likely to try something like that on us first before our government catches on...
Newbeak
not rated yet Apr 02, 2011
Yeah, we need one of these aremed with a pistol and a hand grenade to track down Osama Bin Laden.

Unfortunately, the terrorists are more likely to try something like that on us first before our government catches on...


How about this thing? Carrying a pound of C4,it would be a nightmare for the Secret Service: http://www.physor...deo.html
Hopefully,they do not get into the hands of the bad guys..

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.