Flying LampshadeBots Come Alive in Cirque du Soleil Performance

Cirque du Soleil and ETH Zurich turn quadrotors into magical floating lampshades

2 min read
Flying LampshadeBots Come Alive in Cirque du Soleil Performance
Image: Cirque du Soleil/Verity Studios

ETH Zurich's Flying Machine Arena has spawned all kinds of mind blowing quadrotor tricks over the years, so it's not at all surprising that it's also spawned a spin-off performance company to take some of those tricks out into the world for the rest of us to enjoy. Verity Studios is combining ETH Zurich's experience with precision flying robots with the wild imaginations of creatives like Cirque du Soleil, starting with a short film called "Sparked" featuring a swarm of quadrotors with lampshades on their heads. 

While filming probably required many, many takes as well as a controlled environment with a motion-tracking system to precisely fly the quadrotors, none of what you're seeing here is CGI: it's all real robots, doing real things, in real time, with a real human in the middle of it. Some of what you're hearing here has certainly be modified, though: 10 quadrotors in close proximity sounds like a swarm of giant robot bees. That are angry. With you.

Here's some behind-the-scenes video of what went into making "Spark." I especially like hearing about some of the things that they tried before settling on lampshades:

So each lampshadebot has its own personality, and apparently, the reason that the purple one isn't in most of the video is that it was "aerodynamically intractable." Heh.

What's it like to actually be on set with a huge swarm of noisy flying robots? Markus Waibel (who co-founded Verity with Raffaello D'Andrea) describes the experience:

Within hours the entire film crew had become comfortable with the flying machines hovering nearby or brushing past them as they swooshed through the air. On one occasion, a mis-timed dolly motion led to a flying machine hovering just centimeters above the camera man, who continued with his work unfazed. On another occasion, when Nicolas missed his cue, he bumped into one of the flying machines. But they just jostled past each other and continued on with their choreography as if nothing exceptional had happened. On yet another occasion, a drone collided with the moving camera without disturbance.

The only damage during the entire two-day shoot was a single broken lamp, knocked over by one of the quadrocopters’ airflow.

So no humans or robots injured in the making of this film. In fact, a quadrotor with a lampshade on its head, blocking its rapidly-spinning blades, is possibly the safest kind of quadrotor.

Quadrotors began to take part in artistic performances several years ago. Dance company Pilobolus and Daniela Rus's group at MIT have been collaborating in different routines since 2011. Now Verity Studios is joining the likes of KMel Robotics and (if they can make it actually happen) Disney Research in starting to commercialize artistic quadrotor performances. It's kind of crazy that in just the last few years, a handful of companies have entered this space, considering how difficult it is to get it to work in practice. KMel has to deal with flying in uncontrolled environments outdoors, just as Verity has to deal with safe human interactions. 

We're hoping that this partnership with Cirque du Soleil will lead to more public performances (maybe some that we can go see?), and we're certain that this is just a tiny little taste of what Verity has in store for the future.

[ Sparked ] via [ Robohub ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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