Engineering prof creates search-and-rescue bots
Vijay Kumar's work on quadrotors sheds insight on how networks operate
February 14, 2013, 1:10 am·
They’re just a little larger than a bagel, and one day might save your life during a natural disaster.
Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science professor Vijay Kumar received a lot of press attention and academic accolades this past year for his work on tiny autonomous robots — called quadrotors for the four rotating rotors that allow them to maneuver through the air.
The robots gained considerable press attention last year for a YouTube video that showed the quadrotors flying in formation to perform the James Bond theme song.
Kumar himself was elected this year to the National Academy of Engineering, received the 2013 George H. Heilmeier Faculty Award for Excellence in Research and appeared on the Nova documentary “Rise of the Drones” on PBS.
While his work may frequently appear in the media in connection with drone technology, Kumar is quick to distinguish the quadrotors from military drones — pointing out their potential to help.
In terms of differences, Kumar’s quadrators are much smaller than military aircraft — as small as eight inches in diameter and weighing less than a tenth of a pound — and are not designed to be weapons or used for military operations.
“I guarantee you’re going to hear it before you see it,” Kumar said. “There is no potential use in covert operations.”
Instead, Kumar sees his quadrotor robots being used for search-and-rescue missions by first responders in the wake of a natural disaster.
“You get much faster response time, and we’d like to make sure that human rescue workers are not in harm’s way,” he said.
Kumar also said that police departments might also make use of this quick response time by sending out drones to a crime scene to collect evidence.
“Imagine there is a 911 call from a building. Before police get there or emergency personnel, we would like eyes and ears on the scene trying to get information back to emergency responders,” he said.
Additionally, quadrotors are not remote-controlled, while drones are operated by pilots.
“When the decision [is] made to attack … there are humans looking at the target and saying, ‘I want to eliminate that target,’” Kumar explained.
His robots are completely autonomous. A swarm of quadrotors can collaborate to move past an obstacle or form a shape without human direction.
According to Kumar, the quadrotors are also useful in that they demonstrate how complex systems — networks of interacting individuals — function.
“One question you might ask is … if I want individuals to scatter into a building and occupy different rooms, what local rules must be used to ensure … the outcome without telling them individually, ‘Hey, I want you to go here and you to go here’?” he said. “What you want to do is think about how you might interact with your neighbors so that eventually you end up in different rooms.”
Kumar and his team use the quadrotors to research this and similar questions.
“If we use flying vehicles to demonstrate on the basic concept, they’re happy. If we wanted to use something else to demonstrate the concept, they would be equally happy.”
While Kumar is quick to point out the differences between quadrotors and Remotely Piloted Vehicles, he believes that the term “drone” does not accurately describe either technology.
The term drone originally referred to a type of male honeybee whose only purpose is to mate with the queen, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
“It’s actually a dumb organism that has a very, very simple soul,” said Kumar. “Anything that is human operated cannot be called dumb because if you do that then you are calling the human dumb. So it cannot be applied to anything the Air Force flies.”
Kumar does not want the quadrotors to be called drones either.
“They’re not drones. They’re robots,” he said. “[The term drone] cannot be applied to anything we fly because we try to make them smart.”