The James Bond of robots: Vijay Kumar at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Welcome to Autonomous Agile Aerial Robots i.e. flying robots that can move like anything. Vijay Kumar, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, makes robots related to unmanned airplanes. But those are big and heavy and aren’t autonomous — they need humans to pilot them.

The robots he works with are tiny. He shows one built like a cross, with four rotors, each on an end of the cross pointed straight up. Independent control of the rotors, in all directions plus yaw, gives exquisite control.

The advantage of being small is tremendous: The smaller a robot, the quicker it can turn and maneuver. The result is amazing. He shows four videos of the robots doing flips, pirouettes, and rolls.

These robots are far more than novelties. They can be first responders in disasters. They can help with construction, or cooporate with other robots to move large objects. They can also do search and rescue — or mapping nuclear radiation levels after a nuclear accident.

Dynamics of the quadrotor is defined by mathematics in twelve-dimensional space. But there is a mathematical trick to make it tractable — and it can be done in a fraction of a second, even with moving obstacles. The result is breathtaking — a flying robot dodging moving Hula hoops in a scene that, if it were in a movie we’d all assume it took months to plan and film, but it being done in real-time.


Kumar takes inspiration from nature in many ways. Tiny desert ants can move giant objects (say, a section of a fig) by grouping and moving the fig collectively. Kumar and his team have built programs for the quadrotor that mimic that behavior, and allows teams of them to build extraordinarily complex objects together.

But there’s one last application: a video of the autonomous robots that Kumar’s students Daniel Mellinger and Alex Kushleyev created in the last three days, made exclusively for TED2012. It has to be seen to be believed, but we’ll just say this: The James Bond theme song.