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Tech by VICE

Swarming Robots Won't Kill Us All: An Interview With Quadrotor Inventor Vijay Kumar

I was sitting at my desk, munching an embarrassingly-gargantuan chocolate-granola cookie and musing, “What on Earth are the latest developments in the infinitely fascinating field of robotics?” (This is something I think about a lot.) Then I vaguely...

by Michelle Lhooq
Apr 18 2012, 5:55pm

I was sitting at my desk, munching an embarrassingly-gargantuan chocolate-granola cookie, when I vaguely recalled some crazy video my friend showed me from a TED talk—where tiny flying drones gracefully bounce on musical instruments and play the James Bond theme song.

Super cute, right? That's what I thought. At first. Then, I watched some other videos, and realized that these "flying quadrotors" (that's their scientific name) are actually more like the plague of Biblical locusts that God sent down to curse the Egyptians for being mean to the Israelites…or something.

So I decided to call the guy from the TED Talk, Vijay Kumar, who also runs a prestigious robotics lab at the University of Pennsylvania. I tried to pry about whether people should be scared of these buzzing monsters. Things got a little awkward, probably because he got offended that I called his beloved inventions "buzzing monsters." Whatever. I was just glad he couldn't see the giant chocolate smears on my cheek.

These robots look tiny. What are their exact sizes?

Approximately 8 inches in diameter and 1/8 of a pound. They're definitely the smallest flying robots on the market.

What are the advantages of being so small?

They're good to have around during a disaster. They can operate indoors, in tightly constrained environments, so you could use them for search-and-rescue missions that are too dangerous for humans to operate in.

Let's say an earthquake hits a major American city. What could these robots do?

You'd use them to look for survivors in buildings where you wouldn't want to send people in. A team of ten of these robots would bring in equipment, build a map of the environment, look for dangerous chemical or gas leaks, and quickly locate human presences using infrared sensors.

That's awesome. Where can I get one?

The smallest robots aren't available just yet for purchase. The bigger robots can be bought off the shelf. Either way, they're quite expensive.

How expensive?

It depends. The parts themselves cost between $1000 to $20,000.

Kumar promises this talk won't lead to the robo-apocalypse.

Well if I scraped together the dough to buy one of these babies, what could I do with it?

It is not clear to me if there is a use for the layperson. We are interested in creating educational modules to facilitate STEM education using these robots. You have to take math and physics really seriously to understand these robots. Is that what you're studying?

Um, no.  So there isn't a normal guy out there who owns one of these things to play around with?

They are currently research prototypes and have not been used yet. So, no.

When I saw these quadrotors in their mass formations…they looked pretty intimidating. Like a swarm of killer locusts or something. Could someone use these robots to unleash evil on the world?

This is a popular misconception about robots. Can they fail, like a computer does? Sure. Can they deliberate take over the world? No! Could someone use this technology to harm people? Sure! But this is true for everything. Nuclear physics gave us MRIs, but also created nuclear weapons. It's up to us to manage how technology is used.

That's true. But I want to know some possible ways someone could use these robots to like, kill someone.

[Says "uhhhh" for 15 seconds] I'm not sure I want your readers to know about these things. But ok, speaking generally, we all know airplanes can be used as terrorist weapons.

Aggressive robots? Just kidding, the quadrotors are just doing "aggressive" maneuvers. Oh, wait…

You have to admit, these things do look creepy when they're in a swarm formations.

It's funny you say that. That's exactly why we have them playing a nice James Bond song that everyone knows. We really don't want to portray them like that.

So if the quadrotor isn't a "killer locust," what else could you compare it to?

I would say they're like ants. You can give them a task, and they'll automatically determine their roles without a specified leader. It's kind of like asking four people to move a table…you don't have to tell them exactly which parts to pick up, how to lift it, or how to move their arms. They can figure it out themselves.

Very cool. As a leader in your fieled, what's your forecast of the top developments in robotics we can look forward to seeing in the next ten years?

Like Yogi Bera says, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But the biggest question is my mind is what areas robotics will actually penetrate into people's everyday lives. Right now, the biggest buyers of robots are the military and manufacturing industry. But in the United States, robots haven't found their way into homes. The technology is mature, we just need to figure out useful ways for robots to interact with people.

Do you have any special robots incorporated in your life?


What would you do if robots took over the world?

That. Is. Not. Happening. At least, not in my life time!

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