Self-assembling vehicles take flight (w/ Video)

Self-assembling vehicles take flight
Modules assembled into a hexagonal array

( -- Researchers in Switzerland are developing miniature vehicles that can self-assemble and then take off vertically and fly as a stable array.

The system, developed at the Institute of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich, is known as a Distributed Array. The system is basically a flying platform consisting of a number of autonomous wheeled vehicles, each driven by a fixed ducted propeller. Each vehicle has its own motor and flight control system and is equipped with a computer, and wireless communication systems.

The individual vehicles can drive on the ground, dock with other vehicles, and can fly but only in an uncontrolled and erratic way. When the vehicles are joined together, however, the combination becomes a sophisticated flight platform capable of coordinated flight, with data shared rapidly between the individual vehicles and flight control distributed across the array.

A short video which introduces the Distributed Flight Array which is being developed at ETH Zurich.

Each vehicle has sensors, and the information from all the vehicles is combined to calculate the thrust required for take off and to maintain level flight. If the flight level is disturbed each vehicle in the array determines the thrust required to correct the flight of the array, taking into account the position of the vehicle in the array and its motion. Instead of landing, the array breaks up, with the individual modules dropping to the ground on their own and then driving off.

The distributed flight array is at the proof of concept stage, but in the future could be useful for applications such as lifting heavy objects, with the number of vehicles or modules in the array selected according to the lift required. The modular nature of the array also means some failure can be tolerated since if one or two vehicles fail the others can compensate.

Self-assembling vehicles take flight

Among ETH Zürich’s many other research projects is a Flying Machine Arena (FMA), which is a 10 m cube of indoor space designed specifically for testing and validating autonomous vehicles. The space has glass on one side and nets on the other three sides so flying vehicles can be tested safely. An optional safety net can also be installed on the bottom of the space to prevent crashes onto the hard ground.

ETH Zürich, founded in 1855, is one of the leading universities in the world for technology and the natural sciences, and aims to facilitate research and results beneficial for society as a whole.

A Dancing Quadrocopter. Synchronizing the Motion of a Quadrocopter to Music.
Interactive flip demo. A person holds a "wand" with markers on it. Simple wand gestures tell the system what to do.

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More information: DFA project page:
More videos on YouTube:

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User comments

Jun 09, 2010
why? what advantage is there to this system?

Jun 09, 2010
why? what advantage is there to this system?

Redundancy, for one. The more redundant a system, the less likely it is for total system failure. Also, there's no central controller. The "logic" is also distributed and redundant.

This system, "as-is", isn't intended be used exactly like it is. It's more a conglomeration of different technologies, each a proof of concept. The self-assembling tech could be used to build space stations, for example, or to build a moon base or a Martian base. Self-assembly has many potential applications. Redundancy has virtually global applications. Removal of centralized computing has plenty of advantages (P2P file sharing, for example).

Jun 09, 2010
Dancing Quadrocopter would make for an awesome back yard light show. :)

Jun 10, 2010
I don't know about the flying part, but the docking assembly and combined processing on a miniature enough scale could lead to interesting T-1000-like machines some day.

Jun 13, 2010
bloodoflamb-no shite jackass. that stability would be useful in taking out a tank.
strap a couple machine guns and maybe a small cannon onto each little part, and you put them together and vastly increase their firepower, albeit you would be limited to the outside surface of the combined craft.
I would think at a larger size though, more stability would be in place....

Well you'd have the same firepower overall with multiple small units seperately flying around that you would with them all joined...

I don't know why would you want to concntrate them into one area to make them easier to hit by whatever was attacking them.

Easier to take about a hive of bees with the bees all in the hive than it is to take down a swarm of bees around you.

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