Robotics is forming a greater part of our lives every day. Robots today undertake a number of tasks from simple mundane tasks to complex lifesaving operations. Current uses have seen robots playing active roles in the cleaning department (Your automatic vacuum cleaner or Robo lawnmower), medical roles (Performing surgery and tests), Manufacturing (Motorcars, aircraft and much more), this list is rather long even seeing

Nano-Quadcopter Robots
University of Pennsylvania’s nano-quadrotors can fly in swarms. Image: Kurtis Sensenig, University of Pennsylvania

robots performing duties in outer space with the most famous one of all just having left not only the solar system but having left the actual outreach of the sun itself.

Of late, engineers have concentrated on letting robots take to the skies and also on AI (artificial intelligence). Artificial intelligence is applicable in many fields, as an example, Engenya has been studying the application of thinking tools in the Oil Industry with regard to exploration and overcoming the dangers associated with such operations. It is in this light that engineers at the University of Pennsylvania are coaxing robots into becoming airborne to assist in operations such as immediate response operations during search and rescue missions where the immediate environment would be threatening to the researchers themselves.

Unlike previous ideas generated in this line, the thinking seems to be: go small and go plenty. This seems to have been adopted since a small flying robotic rescuer could access more areas and be less susceptible to environmental dangers than a large one when seeking for survivors, victims, sources of gas leaks and other scenarios often found in natural and man-made disasters. To achieve the “plenty” concept, engineers have succeeded in making these robots not only operate in close proximity but also be able to collaborate and fly in swarms and formations while pursuing a joint task.


In an interview, published on ASME, Dr. Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor and the Deputy Dean for Education in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn. was quoted:

“Our goal is to develop robots that immediately respond to natural disasters or 911 calls. For instance, the robots can collect critical information before humans arrive at the disaster scene, and allow them to operate safely. The nano-quadrotors are autonomous robots that can operate in 3-D environments and fly over and around obstacles. Remote-controlled quadrotor robots have been around for some time but the Penn team has enhanced the technology further over the past few years by making these robots smaller and smaller. “Compared to unmanned aerial vehicles that are remotely piloted and weigh a few hundred pounds, these robots are completely autonomous, small (a foot in scale, a fifth of a pound), and agile.”

Group formations, however, are unique to nano-quadrotors due to their control propoerties and method of flight at this stage. This was also a first for the department which for this purpose used off-board sensors that enable the robots to figure out where they are in the environment rather than adding these to the robots.

“If you want multiple robots to operate together, each robot must have the basic intelligence that allows it to cooperate with other robots. The cooperation in its simplest form allows the flight. In this case, the robots are cooperating by simply reacting to each other’s positions to ensure safe flight. Robots know they have to move quickly through a 3-D environment and they adjust their position to ensure they don’t collide with the environment or their neighbors.”

“If you have a small number, for example 5-10, it’s possible to have a central computer controlling each one of these robots. The number of variables that you have to model increases linearly with the number of robots, which is not hard to manage. What’s harder to manage is the number of interactions between robots that grow as the square of the number of robots. When you go from 5 to 10 to maybe 100 or 500, the square grows pretty rapidly and that increases the complexity pretty significantly.”

Dr. Kumar also added a brief explanation about the two main challenges that face engineers in the creation of these robots:

Flying Robotic Nano-Quadcopters
Nano-quadrotors playing the piano. Image: Kurtis Sensenig, University of Pennsylvania

Challenge number 1: controlling one robot

“If you look at one robot, it has four rotors but it has six degrees of freedom—there are three translations and three rotations. What you are trying to do is control six different things with only four motors. Such systems are called under-actuated and to have these systems perform these maneuvers is very hard. The key challenge is, therefore, to do more with less.”

Challenge number 2: controlling more than one robot at the same time

“For that you have to think of an architecture that can be translated into local rules. If you don’t have local rules and you rely on global rules, then it becomes harder and harder to control the robots as the complexity grows as the square of the number of robots.”
Engineers continue to work on robots in all fields but it is hoped that soon these will be advanced enough to be able to assist in life saving situations. As the future unfolds, we will see such applications working tirelessly in improving daily human life.

ASME undertook a Podcast with Dr. Kumar: Listen to Podcast

Engenya is currently involved in creating intelligent tools and software for the oil and related industries.

Adapted from articles on Wikipedia, Penn. State, Engineering News and ASME (by Chitra Sethi)