Quadrotors are all the rage right now, from a series of robots that precisely create buildings out of blocks, to an artist who turned his deceased cat into a flying machine (yes really); but what about robotic flying machines that need to self-assemble and cooperate in order to take flight? That was the dream of Professor Raffaello D’Andrea at the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. In 2008 he conceptualized the Distributed Flight Array, a self-assembling modular robot, and today it has become a reality. He and his team of researchers/students have spent the past 5 years conceptualizing, prototyping and testing a series of one-rotor flying machines that can’t fly on their own… but together form an unlimited array of flying potential. It’s seriously cool how well these machines operate; just check out the video below![see_also]
To self assemble the machines use three small 3D printed wheels to maneuver into position beside one other. Then, bonding together with weak magnets, the hexagonal machines are ready to fly in unlimited configurations of four or more. The magnets are “weak” on purpose, serving to show just how cooperative the machines really are as they fly in tight formation.
To communicate with one another, the robots use physical connections much like those employed in Apple’s MagSafe power connecter… and what’s really surprising is the fact that once the information is communicated, little more needs to be known by the neighboring units!
“The only information that a unit needs for flight is its local sensor data and its position with respect to the vehicle’s centre of mass. This can be computed if each unit knows the physical configuration of the vehicle. In order for a unit to determine this on its own, each unit can work out its relation to neighboring units by sharing appropriate information. By forwarding this information around the network, each unit can arrive at the physical configuration of the vehicle, much like how one might establish his/her family tree.”
Check out the fantastic videos below, then see the full history of the project at robohub.org.