Why quadrotors will be storming the skies soon

quadcopter taking offNext to the Avengers, the most bankable flying objects may be quadrotors (or quadrocopters, take your pick.) These tiny flying objects have become YouTube darlings with video after video of previously unthinkable feats.

Three of them can throw and catch a ball using a net strung between them – with absolute precision. Others have performed the James Bond theme song with their own instruments. Or swarmed the skies over Austria.

What makes these devices so fascinating, and so worthy of all this attention?

Researchers Vijay Kumar and Nathan Michael have one answer. Their paper, Opportunities and Challenges with Autonomous Micro Aerial Vehicles (pdf), gets to the heart of why experimental quadrocoptors are much more than mere YouTube novelties.

Micro-UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can operate in three-dimensional environments, explore and map multi-story buildings, manipulate and transport objects, and even perform such tasks as assembly. While fixed-base industrial robots were the main focus in the first two decades of robotics, and mobile robots enabled most of the significant advances during the next two decades, it is likely that UAVs, and particularly micro-UAVs will provide a major impetus for the third phase of development.

In other words, the future may belong to these tiny flying robots. Just as the first industrial robots revolutionized the factory floor with their precision, stamina and strength, quadrotors could quite literally apply the same abilities anywhere.

I’m having a hard time remembering another time when advanced science, the hottest toys, and the latest military weapons all revolved (no pun intended) around the same idea.

For $299, you can buy at Brookstone an AR Drone that can fly 165 feet from your controller and take HD video of what it sees. But the real advances are still taking place behind the walls of academia.

Like where Sergei Lupashin spends his waking hours. Sergei is a PhD student who helped develop the so-called Flying Machine Arena (FMA) in ETH Zurich. The padded, net-enclosed aerodrome has been home to many popular quadrotor test runs. Inside, students push the limits of what quadrotors can do.

flying machine arena quadrocopter“We do basic research in control systems,” says Sergei. “This is a somewhat math-heavy, dry type of engineering and science, yet the world literally depends on it to run everything from power plants to your car. All of these are running thanks to numerous control systems of various complexities. Controls are also at the core of the push for efficiency and sustainable living.

“We pick challenging, but simple-to-explain problems like quadrocopter ping-pong to motivate the basic research we do. These examples allow people, even with minimal knowledge of control systems, to readily relate to our research.”

The existence of the FMA, says Sergei, and the popularity of videos like the ones we’ve seen recently, also helps create often-surprising collaborations, like the Flight Machine Enabled Construction project his team did in Orleans.

That project demonstrated how a team of quadrocopters could be used to build a simple structure. You probably remember swarms of copters stacking blocks while a cocktail party ensued nearby.

“We are regularly pushing our flying vehicles to their limits, because this is where a lot of interesting problems lie for us where adaptation and learning can be effective,” says Sergei.

But building isn’t the only use for these tiny eyes in the sky. News reports warn that military drone technology is spreading to other countries and may alter the way wars are fought. Just this week, the Islamic militant group Hezbollah claimed credit for flying an unmanned UAV over Israel. Others warn that drones are about to spread to peacetime uses, and that may be dangerous.

This worries Sergei.

“There’s a lot of focus on military applications of multicopters and UAVs. This is very unfortunate. There are so many amazing things they can enable in civilian life. Small UAVs have the potential to make accessible completely new perspectives for us. I really hope that we find a common sense to integrate them into daily life without a blanket ban on their use for civilian purposes.”

For example, Matternet wants to develop a network of tiny unmanned vehicles in the poorest areas of the planet, so that they can deliver antibiotics to a sick child or other vital needs to the over one billion people who lack access to transportation.

quadrocopter skiierDedicam offers flying HD cameras that have been used to film sporting events. Sensefly bills its civilian drone as an easy-to-use flying camera.

Here’s the basic sense I’m getting. If you think these flying drones are getting a lot of attention now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Bruce Kasanoff is a speaker, author and innovation strategist who tracks sensor-driven innovation at Sense of the Future. Kasanoff and co-author Michael Hinshaw teamed up to explore more of the opportunities unearthed by disruptive forces in Smart Customers, Stupid Companies.