Quadrotors Come to TED

Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science is home to some of the most innovative robotics research on the planet, much of it coming out of the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab. On Wednesday, Feb. 29, Deputy Dean for Education and GRASP Lab member Vijay Kumar presented some of this groundbreaking work at the TED2012 conference, an international gathering of people and ideas from technology, entertainment, and design.

He also debuted a video of the lab’s quadrotors doing something they have never done before:

Kumar, along with GRASP Lab members Daniel Melligner and Alex Kushleyev, are helping scientists and engineers create smarter, faster, and more flexible robots by mimicking the swarming behaviors of birds, fish and insects. Figuring out how to move in unison without crashing into obstacles, or one another, is a critical skill for robot teams to develop, especially since they may one day be used to survey landscapes, build structures, or even play music.  

 In this demonstration, the “stage” is in a room fitted with infrared lights and cameras. The nano quads all have reflectors on their struts, which allows the camera system to plot their exact position and relay that information wirelessly to each unit.

 Lab members can then assign each unit a series of waypoints in three-dimensional space that must be reached at an exact time. In this case, those times and places translate into notes on a keyboard or a strum of a guitar. Figuring out how to get from waypoint to waypoint most efficiently and without disturbing their neighbors is up to the robots.   

 At TED, Kumar shared the stage with some of the world’s top scientists, artists, politicians, business leaders, and big-thinkers, including Bryan Greene, Sherry Turkle, Atul Gawande, and T. Boone Pickens. He participated in a session with five other luminaries from robotics and technology, including Regina Dugan, director of DARPA, and Marco Tempest, a techno-illusionist.

 An earlier video of quadrotors created by the GRASP Lab has been taking the web by storm, with more than 5.5 million views since it was posted in late January.

Video by Kurtis Sensenig
Text by Evan Lerner