The IDSA International Conference is just under three weeks away, and if you have yet to make plans to be in Chicago from August 21–24, we strongly suggest you do so ASAP. As always, the lineup of speakers is pretty stacked, and while we've crossed paths with many of this year's speakers over the years, the IDSA keeps it fresh with the likes of, say, Paralympian Blake Leeper. Similarly, we were interesed to see Dr. Vijay Kumar's name among the presenters. I'd been curious about his work ever since the first video on "A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors" hit the web over a year and a half ago—check it out:
The research, at UPenn's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab (GRASP for short), has come a long way since then, but Dr. Kumar noted that there is still a long way to go. After spending a recent sabbatical at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, he will continue his research in robotics—specifically, swarm dynamics. His recent TED Talk illustrates the latest developments in his research on aerial robo-collaboration:
Dr. Kumar promises to deliver a "more technical" presentation at the Hyatt Regency Chicago on Thursday, August 22, where he'll share the latest developments on "Tiny Flying Robots":
There are a number of labs and schools across the globe that have been experimenting with autonomous quadrotors—small flying robots that communicate with each other. They have already accomplished a number of seemingly difficult tasks, like juggling balls or building a tower. Given the ability to hover and fly, sense objects and communicate, there are already a thousand creative tasks they could perform.
Conversely, Dr. Kumar has long rejected the common mischaracterization of UAVs as drones, and vice versa, echoing former Air Force Chief General Norton Schwartz's comment that these unmanned aircraft are, in fact, piloted. "This is one distinction that's quite sharp that I'd like to make: the drones that we hear about in the press are actually remotely-piloted vehicles; they're not drones, they're human-driven. So this is a misnomer, and the press really should not be using that [term to describe them]."
Once he had cleared the air (so to speak), Dr. Kumar proceeded to share his thoughts on the real-world applications of swarms of autonomous quadrotors.
Core77: This is a conference for industrial designers, but you are an engineer by training and trade. What lessons do you hope to impart on the design community?
Dr. Vijay Kumar: Design is a broad thing—I suspect that [Conference attendees] are primarily interested in designing physical things, and I think if there's one thing that's changed, design is no longer about the physical thing. Every physical thing has software embedded in it, [so now,] when you think about design, you want to consider co-designing the software piece and the hardware piece. Smartphones, for example, already incorporate a lot of that—thinking about the user interface—which is an important new direction.
So what are some of the potential applications of the quadrotors?
We are interested in applications such as search-and-rescue, first response, law enforcement and so on—humanitarian applications. For that, we're designing vehicles that travel indoors, [that are designed to] go in and out of buildings.
[Alternately,] we're looking to make farming more efficient, to track things like fertilization and harvesting [schedules]... having robots patrol the field and telling the farmer which crops to plant, when to [sow] and when to harvest—decisions that can really be streamlined.
How far do you think these "Tiny Flying Robots" are from being on the market?
Well, you'd have to talk to a company that is actually commercializing this [research]. The real question is what application is going to work—the economic issue—which I fortunately don't have to worry about. But if you ask me the question, is the technology mature enough to be used today, the answer is yes.
What are you looking forward to working on in the future?
Our goal is to make them smaller, more agile and more responsive to humans. Since we want them to do things quickly, one of the things we're trying to explore is having lots of them collaborate.
So, for instance, if there's a 911 call from a building, I'd love to be able to sort of drive up in a car, and then have the quadrotors take off from the trunk, enter through open windows, explore the building and tell me exactly who is where, who needs help, etc., in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
Today's robots are very clunky—they're all individually controlled by humans and they're limited in terms of their mobility and how smart they are. We'd like to [reach a point where] a single human can control a lot these guys, to gather information really quickly, so they'd actually make effective decisions.
I think humans, and how we actually approach this problem with this particular technology can really change the way we actually use it. So the question is, 'Do you want to embrace this technology or not, or do you want to be scared of it?' I think that really is the issue—so I tell people that we're investigating very peaceful applications, and I certainly don't think we'll be going anywhere else with this.
In other words, we don't have plans to take over the world.
Vijay Kumar is the UPS Foundation professor at the University of Pennsylvania's (Penn) School of Engineering and Applied Science and on sabbatical leave at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where he serves as the assistant director for robotics and cyber physical systems.
Since 1987, Dr. Kumar has been on the faculty in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics with a secondary appointment in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Penn. He served as the deputy dean for research in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from 2000 to 2004.
Dr. Kumar's research interests are in robotics, specifically multi-robot systems and micro aerial vehicles. He directed the GRASP Laboratory, a multidisciplinary robotics and perception laboratory, from 1998 to 2004. He was the chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics from 2005 to 2008. He then served as the deputy dean for education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from 2008 to 2012.