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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjQPHprBTPs
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."