My confidence in humanity's superiority over robots has been shaken...but not stirred. Flying drones can play the James Bond theme song from the series of famous action films. In one of the most fun and impressive robotics video seen this year, nine flying quadrotors from UPENN's GRASP Lab play six different instruments including the cymbals, piano, and “couch-guitar”. Amazingly, this clip was conceived of, programmed, and shot in just three days! Debuted on Wednesday February 29th at this year's TED talks in Long Beach, the Bond theme quadrotor video has already received more than 2 million views on YouTube. While it is a phenomenal display of the flying robots skills, the music video only hints at the potential for these aerobatic drones and their equally impressive human creators.
Singularity Hub has covered the quadrotors from UPENN in the past, and these flying bots never cease to amaze. They are also very popular with the general public, with the latest “nano” quadrotor video attracting more than 5.5 million views on YouTube. The robots are the creation of Daniel Mellinger and Alex Kushleyev under the guidance of Professor (and UPENN Dean) Vijay Kumar at the GRASP Lab. All three attended TED 2012, but it was Kumar who gave the actual presentation, summarizing the development of the quadrotors from off the shelf components to experimental platforms. The talk (seen below) is an outstanding tour of the capabilities of the flying robots and a great discussion on where these bots may be headed in the future:
As I mentioned when covering the debut of the “nano” quadrotors, a startup company has been founded around developing the technology called KMel Robotics. I erroneously speculated that “KMel” stood for Mellinger and Kumar, but it's actually Mellinger and Kushleyev who founded it. While information on KMel is scarce, it looks like they will serve as a kind of robotics research support service, collaborating with institutions to develop the next level of automated drone platforms. Although many of the previous quadrotors came from Ascending Technologies, Kumar's TED Talk implies that the nanos were developed in-house – truly impressive considering they are only 8 inches across, weigh less than a tenth of a pound, and can output 15 Watts of power. Those tiny drones do a great job alongside their larger siblings in rocking out to the James Bond theme song.
All of the videos of the quadrotors have been popular on the internet, and some have even appeared on national television. Yet whether the public is more impressed by robots zipping through windows or playing Hollywood tunes doesn't really matter. It's probably not even that important whether KMel develops its own hardware or purchases the platforms. The really definitive technology is seen in the way the drones interact with one another. As Kumar explained in his presentation, the quadrotors (of all sizes) can be given way point coordinates in 3D space, and then left to find their own best path through those locations. Though they are aided by an external sensor system (via wall mounted IR lights and cameras) when the robots play the James Bond theme song they are navigating obstacles (the instruments) and avoiding collisions automatically. That sort of coordinated swarm behavior is applicable not just in flying drones, but in all varieties of robots. If KMel Robotics (and Kumar) keep creating thrilling videos of the quadrotors I'm sure the public will be delighted. But the real game-changing developments will come if (or when) the startup can start to apply those basic swarm skills to more mundane applications like exploration, disaster relief, even warfare. Today the bots are playing the James Bond theme song, tomorrow their successors may actually serve as world-class spies. How awesome is that?
[screen capture credit: from video shot for UPENN by Kurtis Sensening (via YouTube)]
[source: UPENN, TED Talks]