Fully embracing the notion that there’s no point in building a UAV if it doesn’t make other UAVs look completely lame by comparison, UPenn’s GRASP Lab has developed an autonomous quadcopter that does a lot more than hover. It flips, dives, twists and otherwise dazzles, executing aggressive aerial maneuvers like dashing through tight windows with just three inches clearance and zipping in between other hovering quadcopters with graceful ease. All by itself.
The UPenn quadcopter certainly isn’t the first of its kind. MIT has one that navigates with tiny onboard laser scanners, while the the University of Tübingen's AscTec Hummingbird gets around autonomously using the same infrared camera as the Wiimote. For its part, the UPenn UAV keeps track of itself in space using 20 external Vicon cameras that digitally map its surroundings as well as an inertial measurement unit – basically a series of gyros and accelerometers like the ones in the iPhone.
Because it requires such a setup, the tiny quadcopter won’t be flying any missions outside of a predefined space anytime soon. But given the UAVs extreme agility, if researchers can figure out a way to untether the machine from the lab, it could have myriad applications in everything from search and rescue to intelligence to military operations. That’s not even taking into account how much civilian fun the thing could provide if it packed a camera and a little AR.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.