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Swarming Drones

  • Posted 01.17.13
  • NOVA

A University of Pennsylvania lab is developing tiny drones that sense their environment.

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Launch Video Running Time: 02:52

Transcript

NARRATOR: In a lab at the University of Pennsylvania, Vijay Kumar is funded, in part by the military, to create autonomous drones that don't need external links and, like us, can sense their environment.

VIJAY KUMAR (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Lab, University of Pennsylvania): What you see on this robot are these two chips, here, which are, essentially, rate gyroscopes. These play the same role as the semicircular canals in the human body, located near the ears, which, essentially, tell us orientation. So the rate gyroscopes that are on board can actually measure these angular velocities at thousands of times a second. This chip here is the accelerometer, and this allows the robot to sense accelerations in the lateral direction. So these are analogs to the otolith organs that measure acceleration in the human head.

NARRATOR: When a human pilot feels an unexpected change in acceleration, he knows to adjust the aircraft.

VIJAY KUMAR: The robots do exactly the same thing.

NARRATOR: The sensors adjust the craft by changing the relative velocities of the rotors and allow the drones to follow a leader with precision.

VIJAY KUMAR: A fundamental problem in coordinating multiple robots is the ability to maintain formations. What a robot has to do is determine where its neighbors are and figure out what the relative position is and then monitor the relative separation very carefully. You only need to tell one robot how to move, and the other robots essentially maintain formation, by just keeping a specified relative distance. In the figure eight they come within inches of each other, so they have to combat aerodynamic effects from their neighbors, and they have to have very, very precise control. And all that is done autonomously.

NARRATOR: The precision of the robots allows them to do some things more quickly and accurately than human pilots can, like predict the movement and the shape of an object and adjust accordingly.

VIJAY KUMAR: In terms of acrobatics, I think it'll be hard to beat what a robot can do. The neuromuscular system in the human body, there may be delays of the order of 80 milliseconds or 200 milliseconds before you actually take an action, in response to what you see. Well, robots have this unfair advantage. They can do these computations hundreds of times a second, so your delays are of the order of a millisecond and perhaps even less.

NARRATOR: In the lab, the drones communicate with a central computer that uses motion capture, an optical system that tracks silver reflective markers on the robots and tells them where they are at all times, but soon it may be possible to cut the cord. And they've already developed another autonomous drone that can go anywhere on its own.

Credits

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A NOVA Production by Pangloss Films, LLC for WGBH

© 2013 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved

Image

(small flying drone)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Vijay Kumar
GRASP Lab, U. Penn

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