Indoor flying searchcraft from the robot labs at Penn

I visited mechanical engineering professor Vijay Kumar's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception robotics lab at the University of Pennsylvania's Engineering School this morning, and he told me more about the cool quadro-rotor flying robots he and his graduate students are building.

NEW VIDEO: The robots posted on Gizmodo last week rely on a pre-installed infrared range-finding system, the kind Hollywood special-effects companies use in a closed area; while, by contrast, this larger robot can fly through any building's hallways and rooms and windows, sending images and schematics back to base and, as it were, making decisions about what it sees and where it wants to look, using its own internal laser range-finder. Especially if Kumar deploys his ground robots to extend its range.

What for? In 2008, Kumar met with Philadelphia City Police Capt. Walt Smith, Fire Capt. Clem McLaughlin, and other law enforcement and public safety officials to talk about school and building security under fire. "There were a lot of school shootings they were very concerned about," Kumar told me. "Long corridors, with virtually no cover." Delays getting police and emergency personnel inside safely can cost lives, with wounded people bleeding to death. The officers want to cut down risk and observation time.

"Robots are good at things that are structured," Kumar said. "That means indoor environments, unless you're working in space designed by someone like (curve-loving architect) Frank Gehry... Schools are very uniform. We can make aircrafts that can navigate a maze of hallways."

The robot that drew more than 1 million Gizmodo hits for its quick responses - flying through hoops and moving windows - relies on an installed Vicon infrared-range-finding motion-capture system to judge distances quickly and correct for them. Such systems are in wide use by special-effects units in the movie industry, Kumar says, but they aren't installed in schools and other public buildings, "so that is just a cool YouTube demo, for now."

A newer, larger robot built at GRASP uses a laser that can move through rooms in a typical (Vicon-less) building. It can't yet open doors, but "you can always find windows." 

The GRASP robots shoot down hallways, duck into lounges, and send data back to screens that also process their flight paths to show what parts of a building have been observed. This is going to get easier, Kumar adds. "Sensors will become lighter. Mobile processors will become faster." Batteries will be incorporated in structual elements. How fast? "When there's a compelling case to be made for its use in the entertainment industry, it will happen. If it's about fighting terrorsim, on the other hand, God help us... That makes you a believer in capitalism. The markeplace accepts ideas, and develops them."

How different is this from remote-contrpl planes, with their one-man joystick controls, which have been around for years? "The nice thing about these, a single guy could send five of these inside and tell them, 'Don't bother me until you have something to report back." Lots more efficient.

The range of the laser system is limited by wireless communcations, much as a Wi-Fi system might not work outside your home or coffeeshop. But Kumar extends the range with an army of rolling floor robots who can relay communications between a hovering searchcraft and its base. Users will pull up to a building with a small army of floor-crawling and flying robots.

GRASP is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Army, the Office of Naval Research, Lockheed, and other government and private donors. The military funds come from a section of the defense budget that finances what Kumar calls "blue-sky thinking. "Our real focus is on how to model systems and develop algorithms. Theylove it when we develop something practical like this that captures the imagination. But our graduate student theses have to report orgiinal work. Not just a YouTube video."

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