The building you were standing in moments ago has collapsed. Smoke and dust are all around you. You are alive, but you are trapped and injured, and unless someone pulls you from the rubble soon, you will die. No one answers your cries for help.
Then you hear it — a faint buzzing sound. Through a tiny gap in the rubble flies an impossibly nimble device that looks like a toy — a hovering helicopter with four blades. As the robot shines its light on you, you know that the rescue team, at the very least, knows where you are. You are no longer alone.
This is Vijay Kumar’s vision of the future of robotics.
Unmanned aircraft today have a bit of an image problem. When many people think of them, they think of instruments of war with names like “Predator,” “Reaper,” and “Global Hawk,” best known for spying and launching missiles at people in Pakistan and Yemen.
The reputation of pilotless vehicles is so bad that when Princeton University used a remote-controlled helicopter to take photos of its campus in April, some residents wrote Internet comments worrying it would be armed or that it would be used to spy on Princeton residents. (The helicopter flew without incident.)
But when Kumar, professor of engineering at Penn, thinks about flying robots, he mostly thinks about their potential to benefit humanity. And he doesn’t think you should call them “drones.” Military drones, he says, are controlled by flight crews on the ground. A robot follows orders from humans but acts on its own. Not to mention the robots Kumar designs can fit in the palm of your hand.
“The aerial robot industry is taking off — I think it’s about 10 billion dollars now — and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet of all the possible applications,” Kumar says. “Farmers are using UAVs for spraying crops. They could equip UAVs with scanners, sensors and see what conditions are ideal for planting. And those are only the kinds of things that can be done today. In the future, here could be a UAV transportation delivery system, like an air FedEx. I think that’s on the horizon.”
Kumar does more than just talk about robots, he builds them at his lab at Penn. At the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception lab, Kumar and his graduate students make tiny, incredibly agile quadrotors that, without any central control, sense each other and cooperate to perform complex tasks.
Kumar will speak Thursday, June 13, at the Princeton chapter of the ACM/IEEE Computer Society. The annual dinner will take place at 7 p.m. at the Mercer County Boathouse Marina. Call 908-582-7086, E-mail email@example.com, or go online to www.ieee.org. $30.
The talk will be aimed at a technical audience. Kumar also popularizes his work for the general public. More than 2 million people watched the TED talk he gave in 2012, where he demonstrated the capabilities of his swarm of airborne UAVs. (The video is at www.ted.com/talks/vijay_kumar_robots_that_fly_and_cooperate.html.)
Kumar and his team have been developing the robots and the control systems for them. The robots can fly together in precise formations that resemble a well-trained marching band, swirling in figure-8s and moving side-to-side in squares like the aliens in Space Invaders. In one demonstration, they were programmed for simple construction using specially-made rods that could attach to one another. The robots were given blueprints for simple cubic structures and then built the structures on their own, hovering over to where the building materials were, flying to where the cube was supposed to be and carefully laying each beam in place.
The robots can even work together, teaming up to lift heavy objects, although doing so robs them of their hummingbird-like agility.
“UAVs are getting smaller faster and smarter,” Kumar says. And this is happening so partly because of Kumar’s work in the field. Kumar was born and raised in India, where his father was a regulator for the national steel industry, and his mother was a homemaker. He came to the United States in 1983 as a graduate student at Ohio State, looking to do something “out of the ordinary.” The nascent field of robotics seemed to offer a lot of opportunity to do groundbreaking work. The first technical conference on robotics wasn’t held until 1984.
“When I went into it, I thought it was a way to revolutionize manufacturing,” Kumar said. “But I ended up doing something completely different.”
Kumar began working on ways to make a walking robot. However, the computer processors at the time were so slow that in order to make a functioning leg, each of the 18 joints in the unit needed to have its own Intel 8086 processor. This limitation turned out to be very useful later on because it made Kumar devise ways for all those independent processors to communicate with one another. Today, instead of 18 independent joints, he is building swarms of 18 robots that can function as a single unit.
But Kumar worries that those robot swarms will never get out of the lab if public drone paranoia causes the American government to restrict the use of UAVs.
Kumar says that if we don’t develop unmanned aircraft, we could miss out on their benefits. With flying robots, farmers could monitor their crops precisely and get greater yields on less land, which will be important as sea levels rise due to climate change. High value products, like medicines, could be delivered quickly to inaccessible areas.
The focus of Kumar’s work is emergency response. Robots could enter collapsed buildings, search for survivors, and map the structure, like in the scenario at the beginning of this article. It’s ideal work for swarms of small, fast robots.
“Today, we have no way of going through a collapsed building and mapping the interior and doing a reconnaissance mission quickly and effectively without putting people in harm’s way,” Kumar says.
Drones could also enter other dangerous locations, like radioactive disaster zones and even storms. A University of Florida team is currently developing drone swarms to fly into hurricanes and report back measurements that could help track the storms.
But Kumar warns we won’t enjoy any of these benefits if we react out of fear and clamp down on UAVs.
“We’re at quite a critical time,” Kumar says. “There really has to be a dialogue between the public, the technologists, and the policy makers to think about how we take technology forward. If we pass laws that limit the use of this technology, America will lose leadership in this field, and that has happened in a number of areas already.”