Robot swarms selfassemble into flying units of any shape or size

first_imgIt was just a few years ago that we saw the first grainy images of a quad-copter, the incredible aerial brainchild of a bunch of grad students and academics, the sort of thing that could never possibly impact our real lives. It’s too out-there, too science fiction. And yet, today, quad-rotor drones hit the news on a daily basis. They’re in the military, and on Amazon.com. So it’s not surprising that now we’re starting to see new elaborations on the technology, things that beggar belief even more effectively. Still, this latest is a doozy.A team of Swiss researchers have demonstrated not a quad-rotor flying machine, but a modular, multi-rotor one capable of adjusting its behavior to fly reliably regardless of the number of rotors in the unit. And since that would hardly be useful if we had to sit around putting together arbitrary arrangements of rotors, the system naturally assembles itself.These autonomous robots find each other, form a whole, and take to the air — and they do it all while answering to no central authority. This Distributed Flight Array means that each unit decides what to do to help the group, trusting (metaphorically) in the rest of the team to act according to the same predictable rules set.The only aspect of this that is less spectacular than it might be is that it doesn’t assemble in the air. Each hexagonal rotor-bot is fitted with three omni-directional wheels that let it drive to the meeting spot. Amazingly, this spot is generated dynamically based on the surroundings.Scaling this idea down to the size of these nano-quadrotors, from the University of Pennsylvania, seems logical.Once two or more units have found each other, they can attach via small latches, and communicate with infra-red light pulses. (The units shown in the video above are an older version, using a slightly different method of attachment and communication, but the principle is the same.) Thus connected, they can move in almost perfect coordination both while driving and flying.The overall shape of the drone, and each rotor’s place within that shape, will determine how each rotor reacts to changes in attitude; a T-shaped flier needs less work from each rotor on the cross end in order to stay level, for instance. During takeoff, half the units start their rotors going clockwise, the other half counter-clockwise, to mitigate internal torque. It all works incredible well, though no one unit can fly on its own without another to stabilize it.In terms of applications, the usefulness will probably have more to do with the theory than the application. This is a proof of concept for networked flight, though its applications will almost certainly be military first.The ability to create a flying drone frome multiple parts, perhaps one part with surveillance equipment, another few with power supplies, and another with a transmitter, would make infiltration much easier. A previously large and easily detectible robot could be several small and discreet ones. Additionally, as we saw in recent Turkish protest, shooting a drone takes it down — but what if the drone could compensate for any lost rotor in real-time, adjust to its new weight distribution and carry on before plummeting to Earth?last_img read more