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TED2016

Raffaello D'Andrea: Meet the dazzling flying machines of the future

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When you hear the word "drone," you probably think of something either very useful or very scary. But could they have aesthetic value? Autonomous systems expert Raffaello D'Andrea develops flying machines, and his latest projects are pushing the boundaries of autonomous flight -- from a flying wing that can hover and recover from disturbance to an eight-propeller craft that's ambivalent to orientation ... to a swarm of tiny coordinated micro-quadcopters. Prepare to be dazzled by a dreamy, swirling array of flying machines as they dance like fireflies above the TED stage.

- Autonomous systems pioneer
Raffaello D'Andrea explores the possibilities of autonomous technology by collaborating with artists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Full bio

What started as a platform for hobbyists
00:12
is poised to become
a multibillion-dollar industry.
00:14
Inspection, environmental monitoring,
photography and film and journalism:
00:17
these are some of the potential
applications for commercial drones,
00:21
and their enablers
are the capabilities being developed
00:25
at research facilities around the world.
00:27
For example, before aerial
package delivery
00:29
entered our social consciousness,
00:32
an autonomous fleet of flying machines
built a six-meter-tall tower
00:34
composed of 1,500 bricks
00:38
in front of a live audience
at the FRAC Centre in France,
00:40
and several years ago,
they started to fly with ropes.
00:43
By tethering flying machines,
00:45
they can achieve high speeds
and accelerations in very tight spaces.
00:47
They can also autonomously build
tensile structures.
00:51
Skills learned include how to carry loads,
00:54
how to cope with disturbances,
00:56
and in general, how to interact
with the physical world.
00:58
Today we want to show you some
new projects that we've been working on.
01:01
Their aim is to push the boundary
of what can be achieved
01:04
with autonomous flight.
01:07
Now, for a system to function
autonomously,
01:09
it must collectively know the location
of its mobile objects in space.
01:11
Back at our lab at ETH Zurich,
01:16
we often use external cameras
to locate objects,
01:17
which then allows us to focus our efforts
01:20
on the rapid development
of highly dynamic tasks.
01:22
For the demos you will see today, however,
01:25
we will use new localization technology
developed by Verity Studios,
01:27
a spin-off from our lab.
01:30
There are no external cameras.
01:32
Each flying machine uses onboard sensors
to determine its location in space
01:34
and onboard computation
to determine what its actions should be.
01:39
The only external commands
are high-level ones
01:43
such as "take off" and "land."
01:45
This is a so-called tail-sitter.
02:10
It's an aircraft that tries
to have its cake and eat it.
02:12
Like other fixed-wing aircraft,
it is efficient in forward flight,
02:15
much more so than helicopters
and variations thereof.
02:19
Unlike most other
fixed-wing aircraft, however,
02:22
it is capable of hovering,
02:24
which has huge advantages
for takeoff, landing
02:26
and general versatility.
02:29
There is no free lunch, unfortunately.
02:31
One of the limitations with tail-sitters
02:33
is that they're susceptible
to disturbances such as wind gusts.
02:35
We're developing new control
architectures and algorithms
02:38
that address this limitation.
02:41
The idea is for the aircraft to recover
02:50
no matter what state it finds itself in,
02:52
and through practice,
improve its performance over time.
03:03
(Applause)
03:15
OK.
03:22
When doing research,
03:33
we often ask ourselves
fundamental abstract questions
03:34
that try to get at the heart of a matter.
03:37
For example, one such question would be,
03:41
what is the minimum number of moving parts
needed for controlled flight?
03:43
Now, there are practical reasons
03:47
why you may want to know
the answer to such a question.
03:49
Helicopters, for example,
03:51
are affectionately known
as machines with a thousand moving parts
03:53
all conspiring to do you bodily harm.
03:56
It turns out that decades ago,
04:00
skilled pilots were able to fly
remote-controlled aircraft
04:02
that had only two moving parts:
04:05
a propeller and a tail rudder.
04:07
We recently discovered
that it could be done with just one.
04:10
This is the monospinner,
04:13
the world's mechanically simplest
controllable flying machine,
04:14
invented just a few months ago.
04:18
It has only one moving part, a propeller.
04:19
It has no flaps, no hinges, no ailerons,
04:23
no other actuators,
no other control surfaces,
04:26
just a simple propeller.
04:29
Even though it's mechanically simple,
04:31
there's a lot going on
in its little electronic brain
04:33
to allow it to fly in a stable fashion
and to move anywhere it wants in space.
04:35
Even so, it doesn't yet have
04:40
the sophisticated algorithms
of the tail-sitter,
04:41
which means that in order
to get it to fly,
04:44
I have to throw it just right.
04:46
And because the probability
of me throwing it just right is very low,
04:48
given everybody watching me,
04:52
what we're going to do instead
04:54
is show you a video
that we shot last night.
04:56
(Laughter)
04:58
(Applause)
05:10
If the monospinner
is an exercise in frugality,
05:23
this machine here, the omnicopter,
with its eight propellers,
05:26
is an exercise in excess.
05:30
What can you do with all this surplus?
05:32
The thing to notice
is that it is highly symmetric.
05:35
As a result, it is ambivalent
to orientation.
05:37
This gives it an extraordinary capability.
05:40
It can move anywhere it wants in space
05:43
irrespective of where it is facing
05:45
and even of how it is rotating.
05:48
It has its own complexities,
05:51
mainly having to do
with the interacting flows
05:52
from its eight propellers.
05:55
Some of this can be modeled,
while the rest can be learned on the fly.
05:56
Let's take a look.
06:00
(Applause)
06:44
If flying machines are going
to enter part of our daily lives,
06:52
they will need to become
extremely safe and reliable.
06:55
This machine over here
06:58
is actually two separate
two-propeller flying machines.
07:00
This one wants to spin clockwise.
07:03
This other one wants
to spin counterclockwise.
07:05
When you put them together,
07:07
they behave like one
high-performance quadrocopter.
07:08
If anything goes wrong, however --
07:23
a motor fails, a propeller fails,
electronics, even a battery pack --
07:25
the machine can still fly,
albeit in a degraded fashion.
07:29
We're going to demonstrate this to you now
by disabling one of its halves.
07:33
(Applause)
07:56
This last demonstration
08:03
is an exploration of synthetic swarms.
08:04
The large number of autonomous,
coordinated entities
08:07
offers a new palette
for aesthetic expression.
08:10
We've taken commercially available
micro quadcopters,
08:13
each weighing less
than a slice of bread, by the way,
08:16
and outfitted them
with our localization technology
08:18
and custom algorithms.
08:21
Because each unit
knows where it is in space
08:22
and is self-controlled,
08:25
there is really no limit to their number.
08:26
(Applause)
08:55
(Applause)
09:19
(Applause)
10:18
Hopefully, these demonstrations
will motivate you to dream up
10:35
new revolutionary roles
for flying machines.
10:39
That ultrasafe one over there for example
10:42
has aspirations to become
a flying lampshade on Broadway.
10:44
(Laughter)
10:47
The reality is that it is
difficult to predict
10:49
the impact of nascent technology.
10:52
And for folks like us, the real reward
is the journey and the act of creation.
10:54
It's a continual reminder
10:59
of how wonderful and magical
the universe we live in is,
11:00
that it allows creative, clever creatures
11:03
to sculpt it in such spectacular ways.
11:06
The fact that this technology
11:09
has such huge commercial
and economic potential
11:11
is just icing on the cake.
11:15
Thank you.
11:16
(Applause)
11:17

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About the speaker:

Raffaello D'Andrea - Autonomous systems pioneer
Raffaello D'Andrea explores the possibilities of autonomous technology by collaborating with artists, engineers and entrepreneurs.

Why you should listen

Raffaello D'Andrea combines academics, business, and the arts to explore the capabilities of autonomous systems. As part of his research as professor of dynamic systems and control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich), he and his collaborators enchant viewers with works like the self-destructing, self-assembling Robotic Chair, or the Balancing Cube that can perch itself on its corners.

D’Andrea and his team created the Flying Machine Arena to test the gravity-defying abilities of their athletic flying robots. Building on research in the Flying Machine Arena, ETH Zürich partnered with its spin-off company Verity Studios and with Cirque du Soleil to create “Sparked,” a short film showcasing the unexpected airborne dexterity of quadcopters. D’Andrea is the co-founder of Kiva Systems, a robotics company that develops intelligent automated warehouse systems and that was acquired by Amazon in 2012.

More profile about the speaker
Raffaello D'Andrea | Speaker | TED.com