They’re Real: Crazy Daredevil Robots That Fly, Build, And Make Their Own Decisions

In a fantastic TED talk, Vijay Kumar shares the capabilities of modern, autonomous flying robots.

They’re Real: Crazy Daredevil Robots That Fly, Build, And Make Their Own Decisions

We all know that our military is deploying UAVs to drop bombs without deploying manned fighter jets, but in a world where flying robots are a reality, could we be using this technology to build rather than destroy? Could we save lives rather than take them?


In a most visually impressive TED talk, GRASP Labs’ Vijay Kumar, who we’ve featured before, shares everything that he and his colleagues are doing with tiny, quadrotor robots. When you get a few minutes into the clip, you’ll realize these robots don’t just float as lumbering chunks of metal that could fall from the sky at any second. They’re smart stunt copters, pulling tight turns that push two Gs and somersaulting through tight gaps, thanks to the help of onboard accelerometers and some brilliant AI. You can even throw these robots like a baseball, and they’ll stabilize themselves in midair–like a flying Segway.

Fitted with a Kinect and laser sensor, the robots can explore a unique environment and build a 3-D map of the topography (and navigate that topography as they go). Loaded with a special algorithm, they can even build magnetic, cubic structures from a simple blueprint. The AI’s logic decides “What part to pick up, when, and where to place it,” but once set in motion, the process requires no manual inputs from an operator–the hive pieces together the puzzle on its own.

It’s a familiar theme, these quadrotor robot builders. Roboticist Raffaello D’Andre, in conjunction with Swiss architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, has demoed a different team of flying robots constructing structures 20 feet into the air, comprised of 1,500 blocks–structures slightly less latticed in nature, featuring undulating bricks and curved surfaces.

The implications are wild, to say the least. Science is clearly figuring out the fundamental programming behind hive building, and just as excitingly, Kumar’s robots are developing all of the crucial secondary skills they’ll need for this brick laying to be worthwhile. Placing pieces is handy, but the intelligence to scan an environment coupled with the nimbleness to fly into tight cracks will make robots better at the job than their human counterparts. These robots wouldn’t just survey a burning building; they could rebuild its collapsing structures to contain the fire. They wouldn’t just track a flash flood; they could construct dams dynamically to slow the flow.

And–am I the only one thinking it?–strap a few of these bad boys to my back, and the sky’s the limit.

[Hat tip: archdaily]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.