Toy-sized quadrotors flying in formation

Researchers from GRASP Lab at the University of Pennsylvania developed software to allow toy-sized nano quadrotors to fly in tight, precise and eerie formation. Gmoke sez, "William Gibson dreams of a mass of these things comprising a flying skyscraper. I imagine them as surveillance and policing drones ready to stop the OWS action or Arab Spring before it can start."

A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors (Thanks, Gmoke!)


    1. On second view, I agree with you. There’s something just eerily “intelligent” about the way they are moving. If I saw a flock of these things coming at me I would lose my marbles.

      The sound they make, the creepy way they move, it feels almost alien. 

    1. Naw.  Scale these up a bit and suddenly you have Red Barchetta, except with Eyes that can’t be eluded, and “gleaming alloy aircars” much less than two lanes wide, which you won’t leave behind at the one-lane bridge.

      Suddenly that song got a whole lot scarier.

      1. I’d lay odds that they can be taken down by a can of silly string; just aim above them and the downdraft will suck the goo into the rotors.

  1. I’d really like to see tiny helicopters used as a delivery service.  Imagine being able to order say, a can of soda online, and all you have to do is open the window and a little helicopter flies inside and drops off your delivery.

    Sort of a robot carrier pigeon but with more lift.

  2. Oh Lord I want a hundred of these so I can spell naughty words in the sky.

    I don’t care what station I reach in life, part of me will always be 10 years old.

  3. It seems they’d be vulnerable to some sort of mesh or filigree that was thrown in the air over a wide enough area. Looks like a net loss to me.

  4. I’m guessing these things have a sub 15 minute flight time, which still makes it cool.  But really more about the concept and design of the interaction as compared to the stability of the individual copter.

    Besides all I could think was “No one can defeat the Quad Laser.”

  5. One quadrotor:  cool toy
    Two quadrotors:  cool toy with a friend
    Many quatrotors:   creepy

    Sort of like bees; I don’t mind a few, but a swarm, and I’m slowly backing away.

  6. There’s nothing sinister about this technology. It is what’s inside the heads of those commanding the programmers of the drones that worries me. Having faith in humanity, I’d rather imagine them searching for earthquake victims, a lost cat, people lost in the woods, a part of art installation or performance, or a spelling out “I Love You” in front of someone’s daughter’s house… or blowing dust of my desk!

    1. Having lost much faith in humanity, I can’t help imagining the potential (and inevitable) misuses.  Inevitable?  Why, yes.  The nerds don’t mean to be the end of us all, by no means, but such a setup is entirely too useful for espionage, seek-and-destroy, infiltration, and many other non-peaceful applications outside what might occur to a random eleven-year-old’s imagination within seconds of seeing these little dudes in action.  And the people who might utilize this technology for potentially nefarious (or at least oppressive and most certainly nosy) ends have deep pockets indeed.

      1. So your suggested course of action is what now? Kill off all research that “might” be used towards nefarious ends? Stop everybody from doing anything that a government “might” misuse? Let’s say we do that, nanny-state research as a grassroots movement. How do we categorize projects into threatening and non-threatening? What is “misuse”, where does it start, what kind of research leads to it, and where do we draw the line? Armed robots, flying robots? Robots in general?

        Call me weird, but I see this technology with hope as well. Because seriously, if we wanted our governments not to use technology against citizens, we’d have to roll back past the invention of the biface. And mostly, this distrust, this outright fear of what science and technology may bring is usually centered on anything with robots and/or cameras. Combo bonus if both. Read the comments under any given video showcasing a new outright weapon, and you’ll find very few people going “oh my, this could kill someone”. Because, duh, obviously, right? But go to any video showing a robot, drone or whatever, and most of the comments are a variation on the theme of “Oh my, the robots will destroy us all” with varying degrees of earnestness. So while we’re not worried that the government might misuse, say, distance-timed airburst grenade launchers, the moment they invent a new kind of camera everybody is required by the standards of good free-thinking citizens everywhere to wet their pants?

        Yes, yes, yes, the surveillance state, the pre-emptive war, the glass human, of course it feeds into that. But lets face it, at the actual end of an uprising the main cause for said end was usually people with guns versus people with no guns. This is the crux of the matter. While it’s certainly true that technology and surveillance gathering is paramount, I firmly believe that distrusting every new surveillance technology is the techie equivalent of worrying that D&D might turn kids into satanists.

        We should readily embrace these technologies, develop them even further, and make them our own, make it possible for everybody to access their own little swarm of tiny camera robots. And once everybody has them, they’re regulated, and they’re less of a threat. Less so, yes, because everybody owning guns hasn’t made anybody any safer right? Yes, right, but these are not guns.

        Guns are invented for the sole purpose of murdering other human beings, while these robots can have other applications. People agonize endlessly over robots, but apparently not many people are worried about stuff like this: which could very well be used to dig out insurgents out of trenches right now. Or freedom fighters, depending on the perspective you choose to hold.

        I say we direct more ire against technology that WILL be used to kill foreigners and citizens and less against technology that MIGHT.

        ‘s all I’m sayin.

        1. All I’m sayin’ is that a hell of a lot of the gee-whiz things brought to us in the name of science by clever kids with a well-equipped lab at their disposal are things whose existence we eventually have cause to bemoan.  No, I don’t think that’s anywhere close to reason enough to stop developing and innovating and seeing what we can do.  The question of whether we should do something versus whether we can do something has never been the paramount worry for me.  I have a Dr Frankenstein streak in me a mile wide.  I don’t prescribe an end to science, nor a pre-emptive reining-in of technology such as this.  My advocacy is toward an enhanced and accelerated understanding of what things like this will eventually mean.  We, as a culture and as a species, are often slow to grasp the implications of our actions.  And we’re our own worst enemy as well.  We seem constitutionally unable to create and disseminate, for example, an affordable handheld device that offers instant realtime audiovisual communication, access to the internet and all the information and wisdom of the ages contained therein, and global positioning to allow us to keep our bearings and find out what resources are nearby and advantageous to us, without building into every last one of these devices the wherewithal for monitoring, eavesdropping, tracking, and surveillance by whatever powers that be.  We can’t seem to leave other people alone.  Anytime we create a technology that can somehow conceivably be used for evil, it seems we eventually do use it thus.  Instead of using our imaginations to envision ways we can better get along with our age-old enemies (real and perceived), our default reaction is to imagine new and better ways of using technology to try to defeat them.  I have an imagination which is really no darker nor lighter than the average human’s, but I can imagine terrible uses indeed for a synchronized flock of nanocopters.  I don’t have an “evil” use for these things myself, but I know that others do.  And so it will come to pass.  What are we to do about it?  Live with it.  As long as we can.

    2.  The man who invented the fire hose did not at first think, “finally, finally, a way to suppress rioters.”

  7. Speaking of SFnal precursors, these are pretty much the security system of the New Victorians in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, IIRC.

      1. You beat me to it. I can’t recall how the grid in the diamond age resisted intrusion but I suppose it involves a few nods self destructing when they are pushed out of the way/

  8. As soon as the “formation” demonstration came on all I could see was space invaders or galaga. Thank god for the 1980’s and my massive amount of training in fighting these small craft as they fly toward me in a 4×5 formation. Give me a blaster, I can take em!

    Seriously though, these craft are just RIPE for creating a “real” game of galaga. Add a laser-gun to “shoot down” incoming quad rotors and let me at it. Sounds fun.

    1. I……know….how old you are (read in a sing songy voice), because I was thinking the same exact thing, well that and-I want one, no twenty : )

  9. To all the haters: if scientists just gave up every time something could possibly be used for evil, the rest of us would still be wandering around in loincloths, collecting berries and murdering each other with pointy sticks. Blaming science for the world’s ills is a perilous philosophy.

    1. Pretty much all of us deserve to be wandering around in loincloths, collecting berries and murdering each other with pointy sticks. I blame science only for increasing the reach, hubris, damages, and volume of inevitably tragic folly wrought by the human ego.

      (which, by itself, is pretty entertaining, so, go science!)

  10. Gmoke need not worry these things will kill the Arab Spring.  The Muslim Brotherhood was quite ready and able to strangle it in the crib already.

  11. Reminds me a little of Stephen King’s “Battleground”.  I’d pay to see them goofing on the TSA, except you know it would end in gunfire within the passenger area of a crowded airport.

  12. Not that I always agree with them, but I’m glad someone is looking into this…
    (The future is getting creepier and more like a cheesey sci-fi B-movie all the time…)

    Report: “Protecting Privacy From Aerial Surveillance: Recommendations for Government Use of Drone Aircraft” (web page)

    Protecting Privacy from Aerial Surveillance (pdf)

    1.  As a kid, I heard about the tragic tunnel fire/explosion in the Alps caused by a crashed truck carrying flour, and tried to replicate the results by building a flour bomb.

      I never quite got it to work, but as that video shows getting a result is apparently not difficult. I think I was smart enough at the time to not do it his way, though. Looks like he burned or at least singed himself a couple times (if not every time).

  13. Dry your eyes sweethearts! Tiny formation flying robots are awesome. I don’t think you need to worry about the Government using these for surveillance, they can just make shit up about you and go with that anyway.

  14. This is one of those things that gets funded and created by the powerful, then hacked and repurposed by the rest of us.

    Like guns.  Kings and other feudal types thought: “I could really stop a lot of peasants with a few of those.”  A few years later, a peasant or three thought “Wow, I can hit the Duke from way over here.”

    These little quadrotors will be good for watching the people, and I’m sure that nefarious purpose is first on the list.  But now that they exist, it won’t be long before they are weaponized by the oppressed as well as the oppressors.  And they would be fairly cheap to make, compared to an armoured car, or even a rifle.

  15. Raise your hand if you saw this and got confused that they had not programmed a formation demo to resemble Spaced Invaders.

  16. The technology is amazing, but surely within reach of the same parties that would likely be targeted by police and oppressive governments?

    1. Forgot about these. Ball shaped flying robots – built with parts at the local robo shops in Akihabara. 


      1.  Unfortunately, most of us do not have access to a “local robo shop”, or anything resembling anything like Akihabara :)

        I did quite like the cute girl in that video, and the fact that they used the “Danger Zone” song from Top Gun as part of the sound track :)

  17. Everyone fretting about mis-uses of them seem to be missing something important about this demo, IMO — this seems to be going on in a wind-proof testing room. I suspect they’re a long way off from being able to keep such tidy formations in a breeze, and are probably crash-tastic in an even vaguely strong wind.

  18. Like EvilTerran mentioned, this is a heavily leveraged demo. None of the quads have any awareness of their position, environment, obstacles, or relationship to one another. Their positions in space are tracked by a highly redundant network of fixed optical sensors. While the software coordinating and controlling their antics is impressive, I don’t expect the deployment of an autonomous flock of these bad boys anytime soon. 

    1.  I dunno – you sure about that? I haven’t delved into the U Penn site to see how they’re actually doing it but off-the-shelf hardware and chips can add ultrasonic distance sensors and positioning algorithms.

      My Hexacopter is outfitted this way so that I can fly it up the side of a building at a fixed distance for engineering investigation work (it’s also outfitted with a controllable gimbaled camera mount and live video downlink – it can be flown in first person video mode).

    2. Of, course, don’t worry, they probably get their funding from some toymakers, like Hasbro and Mattel and Parker Bros, nothing to worry about there… (someone check on that, will you?)

      When you get right down to it, it’s all about maximum future fun for all Americans!
      It’s the Happy Fun Formation Flyer! (Happy Fun Ball deployed separately.)

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