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ETH building fleet of acrobatic quadrotor robots

Engineers at ETH Zurich are designing flying machines capable of guiding themselves into complex, acrobatic flight formations

2 min read
ETH building fleet of acrobatic quadrotor robots
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Are they called quadrocopters or quadrotors?

Raffaello D'Andrea and his group at ETH Zurich are building a bunch of these amazing flying machines, which they plan to transform into an autonomous stunt flying squad. So far the vehicles can fly in circles and perform audacious flips, but the researches want more for their repertoire: they're designing control algorithms to make a dozen or more quadrocopters guide themselves into complex, acrobatic flight formations.

The trick involves more than just the flying robots. The machines are designed to fly within a special sensor-equipped environment where they'll "teach themselves -- and each other -- how to fly." The researchers call their airspace the Flying Machine Arena. The video above shows how users will be able to control the vehicles by moving a "magic wand" -- the controller has markers and the arena's sensor system captures the gestures and sends control signals to the vehicles. From their site:

Human beings learn from experience: when we try something and fail, we try doing it a different way the next time around. And we are incredibly efficient at this process.

We are so adept, in fact, that when it comes to learning complex activities such as racing a car or playing a violin, we can easily outperform automated systems. This is why we use autopilot programs for the routine aspects of flying a plane (such as cruising, take-off and landing), but why we still need human pilots to handle unexpected events and emergencies.

We are currently developing algorithms that will narrow the learning gap between humans and machines, and enable flight systems to ‘learn’ the way humans do: through practice.

Rather than being programmed with detailed instructions, these flight systems will learn from experience. Like baby birds leaving the nest, they will be clumsy at first. Over time, however, they will become capable of sophisticated, coordinated maneuvers.

Unlike humans, these systems won’t make the same mistake twice. And, when networked, they have the added advantage of being able to learn from each other’s successes and failures. The result is an impressively steep learning curve!

flying machine arena

Image: ETH Zurich

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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