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Vijay Kumar, who gave a TED talk in 2012 and is a GRASP leader, says that new research with drones after receiving a $5.5 million grant will help society in significant ways.

Credit: Courtesy of TED Talks

In Penn Engineering’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory, flying machines dodge and zip around obstacles, aided by location data collected by motion-tracking cameras and fed to them through a computer. And soon, more will be flying about.

Earlier this month, the GRASP Lab received a three-year, $5.5 million Department of Defense grant to develop new flying robots capable of autonomously navigating environments that humans cannot physically see or access themselves, such as inside collapsed buildings. The grant is part of an effort by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, which seeks out emerging technologies for potential military use, to expand the U.S. military’s drone program.

“DARPA’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy, or FLA, program seeks unmanned aerial vehicles that weigh less than three kilograms and can fly at speeds as fast as 65 feet per second,” University Communications Science News Officer Evan Lerner said in a press release.

The GRASP Lab was established in 1979 by then-Chair of Computer Science and Engineering Ruzena Bajcsy, who now teaches at University of California at Berkeley. The lab has long been a center of robotics innovation and research, and was already working on autonomous robots when it received the DARPA grant.

The GRASP research effort will be led by Penn Engineering Nemirovsky Family Dean Vijay Kumar, who will serve as principal investigator for the FLA program, and GRASP Lab Director Professor Daniel Lee. Also involved in the project are Penn Engineering professors Camillo J. Taylor, Kostas Daniilidis and Jianbo Shi.

Kumar has spoken extensively about the potential of unmanned aerial vehicle technology that GRASP has been developing. In February 2012, he gave a TED Talk in California on autonomous robots titled “Robots that fly ... and cooperate.” His presentation included flying a palm-sized robot that two students had built in the GRASP Lab.

“Robots like this have many applications. You can send them inside buildings like this, as first responders to look for intruders, maybe look for biochemical leaks, gaseous leaks,” Kumar said in the talk.

Kumar drew a distinction between the robotic technology used in combat drones and the types that GRASP is developing. While combat drones are often large, weighing several thousand pounds, the robot Kumar demonstrated weighs a tenth of a pound and spans about eight inches in diameter.

Most combat drone robots are also not autonomous, Kumar said, sometimes involving multiple human pilots to operate them from a distance. The GRASP robot, by contrast, can turn and change its flight trajectory largely on its own.

“One of the advantages of this design is when you scale things down, the robot naturally becomes agile,” Kumar said.

Using the DARPA grant, the GRASP team will build on its existing work with these smaller robots. The goal is to develop machines that are both agile and capable of flying and collecting navigation data without human intervention.

“Each robot must also be able to make sense of this information and plan its trajectory accordingly. Packing all of these abilities onto a fast, lightweight platform requires drawing on several engineering disciplines,” Lerner said.

In this regard, the GRASP team is well-equipped. Each of the researchers involved will bring their specific skill sets to the project — from Daniilidis’ expertise in 3-D vision to Taylor’s research on computer vision in robotics.

Additionally, Lee frequently coaches Penn teams that build autonomous robots for prominent robotics competitions, including the DARPA Robotics Challenge and RoboCup, an international competition for which students build an autonomous robot that can play in a soccer game with other autonomous robots.

“It is ironic that computers excel at logical reasoning that take humans many years of specialized training and education to learn, yet machines are still unable to perform simple everyday tasks that we take for granted,” Lee’s personal webpage says.

Despite the Department of Defense funding, GRASP’s research goals ostensibly remain scientific in nature. Kumar, Lee and the other GRASP researchers are not building weapons in University City.

Nevertheless, the GRASP Lab remains the subject of controversy as the recipient of military research funds. One local group, Brandywine Peace Community, organized an anti-drone demonstration and vigil at 34th and Walnut streets against GRASP’s research last weekend.

“We bring attention to the U.S. policy of ‘endless war,’ its victims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Gaza, Iraq, Syria and the Pentagon’s ever-expanding global drone operations for surveillance and warfare,” the group posted on its Google Calendar.

Kumar insisted that their research is purely scientific, and will actually benefit, not harm, society.

“A small, fast, flying robot that can find its way through a partially-collapsed building or a nuclear plant during a meltdown has the power to save lives,” he said.

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