AR Drone Helps Swarm of Self-Assembling Robots to Overcome Obstacles

Watch a helicopter herd a swarm of little robots together to help them climb a hill

2 min read
AR Drone Helps Swarm of Self-Assembling Robots to Overcome Obstacles

We’re used to thinking of robot swarms as consisting of lots and lots of similar robots working together. What we’re starting to see now, though, are swarms of heterogeneous robots, where you get different robots combining their powers to make each other more efficient and more capable. One of the first projects to really make this work was Swarmanoid, with teams of footbots and handbots and eyebots, and researchers presented a similar idea at IROS earlier this month, using an AR Drone to help a swarm of self-assembling ground robots to climb over a hill.

The focus of this research is communication: getting a flying robot to be able to communicate with a swarm of ground robots by relying exclusively on visual feedback from LEDs. All you need to get this to work are lights, cameras, and some mildly intelligent robots: you can leave your maps, GPS, IMU, hardware IDs, and all that stuff at home. Here's a video of the system in action:

As interesting as the communication is, it's the applications that really make this video worth watching. Since the ground robots can't see very far, they rely on the quadrotor to scout ahead and estimate the parameters of upcoming obstacles. Then, the quadrotor instructs the swarm on the ground how to team up to best overcome those obstacles. With the hill, for example, the quadrotor can use stereo imagery to compute how steep it is, run an onboard simulation to see how many ground robots will have to team up to make it over, and then give instruction and direction to the robots below. Very clever.

"Spatially Targeted Communication and Self-Assembly," by Nithin Mathews, Anders Lyhne Christensen, Rehan O’Grady, and Marco Dorigo, from Universite Libre de Bruxelles and Instituto Universitario de Lisboa, was presented at IROS 2012 in Vilamoura, Portugal.

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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
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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
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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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