A parallel Worlds

Monday September 1 2014 / Science & Technology

Drones get plenty of bad press. Their deployment as aerial assassins by the military has been heavily criticised. The use of drones as spying tools by the paparazzi hasn’t gone down well either.

And even personal drones piloted by amateurs to capture cool footage have the potential to do more harm than good due to the fact that there is often a novice at the controls.

But beyond the destructive effects that drones can have and the dubious roles to which they can be assigned, there are also plenty of positive stories emerging about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

They may eventually be used to help forecast and/or extinguish raging bush fires, or scan for sharks in waters off popular beaches to protect swimmers and surfers.

Even Amazon and Google have been trialling the use of drones for parcel delivery to get your order to you more quickly, though quite how these machines will navigate the aerial terrain of towns and cities in total safety isn’t yet known.

No, not all drones are agents of evil and one person who is teaching us to show a little love for the drone, a lot of love in fact, is Dr Vijay Kumar, a roboticist and professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and member of Penn’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory.

Kumar has become somewhat of an internet phenomenon since giving an excellent TED Talk about the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles, specifically autonomous agile aerial robots. 

By that, he means four-rotor robots weighing as little as 50g (0.1lb), consuming just 15 watts of power and measuring 20cm (8”) in diameter, controlled by a computer.

In the GRASP lab, Kumar and his team fit these flying quadrotors with processors, sensors, motion capture systems and laser rangefinders so that they can sense each other, swarm together and coordinate to form ad hoc teams and map the environment for construction, surveying, disaster response and more – all while moving with an efficient and graceful motion. 

Watch Kumar’s TED Talk below:

Kumar ends his TED Talk by presenting a slightly more whimsical application of these drones, but one that is no less impressive:

An ensemble of seven palm-sized robots perform the James Bond theme by whizzing through the air to play a variety of instruments including keyboard, percussion and a guitar built from a sofa frame with strings stretched across it. 

A computer controlling the quadrotors was programmed with instructions to play the instruments.

That video, which has now been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube, was created by KMel Robotics, a company co-founded by GRASP graduates and students of Kumar, Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger.

Earlier this year, KMel Robotics put together another musical extravaganza, this time with the help of Lockheed Martin and Intel, and now featuring a band of six-rotor robots.

After beginning the three-melody set with "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Strauss – used in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey – the hexrotors switch to “Carol of the Bells"”, a Christmas composition by Mykola Leontovych, before playing out with the US national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner".

And the drone entertainment doesn’t stop there. KMel Robotics recently collaborated with Lexus for this cool advert below as part of the car manufacturer’s  “Amazing in Motion” brand campaign series.

Here, KMel Robotics’ innovative quadrotor technology using 3D mapping software, complex algorithms and motion capture camera equipment really comes to the fore.

Each quadrotor in the video has reflective markers that respond to infrared light emitted by the cameras. Over a hundred times per second, each quadrotor maps where it is and works out where it should be to enable the swarm to fly in precisely coordinated movements.

The cute custom-made quadrotors, featuring design cues from Lexus vehicles – including its spindle grille, LED headlights and LFA exhaust – bring warmth and personality to high-tech circuitry, precision engineering and aerodynamics, common to both the drones and Lexus cars.

For more information on the autonomous agile aerial robot technology being developed by Vijay Kumar and KMel Robotics, please visit: http://www.kumarrobotics.org/ and http://kmelrobotics.com/.

Suggested by
Juliette Duru

Monday August 25 2014 / Art & Design

Iceland. Home to geysers, hot springs, thick wool sweaters, Björk and a language with more than a hundred names for horse hide patterns.

Beyond the stereotypes, Icelandic TV presenter and journalist Magnus Magnusson made this pithy observation about the Land of Fire and Ice: “When you live in a country which moves under your feet every five years with an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, like the saga heroes of old, you face a choice: Either to flee the country and all its hazards, or to stay and brave them out. For more than 1,100 years, the people of Iceland have chosen to stay and brave them out.”  

It’s not just the locals who have defied the hazards. Iceland has also become a hit destination for photographers willing to tempt their fate on this unstable, volcanic land to shoot some of the most unique and extraordinary geography in the world. 

Monday August 18 2014 / Science & Technology - Art & Design

"Spring is like a perhaps hand,” wrote the American poet E. E. Cummings: “carefully / moving a perhaps / fraction of flower here placing / an inch of air there... / without breaking anything.” 

With the hand of nature trained on a beaker of chemical fluid, the most delicate flower structures have been formed in a science laboratory – and not at the scale of centimetres or even millimetres, but microns.

These minuscule sculptures – curved and delicate and the diameter of a human hair – don't look like the cubic or jagged forms normally associated with crystals, but that's exactly what they are. Rather, fields of carnations and marigolds seem to bloom from the surface of a submerged glass slide, assembling themselves one molecule at a time.

Monday August 4 2014 / Art & Design

Just like clothes fashion, culinary trends ebb and flow depending on what’s hot and what’s not in the foodie world. Beetroot made a comeback with its root vegetable sisters not long ago, and this summer a large array of baby vegetables have hit the shelves for people who adore tiny things.

One food trend that has gone from niche to mainstream is the organic movement. Japanese artist Ryosuke Ohtake has taken organic to an entirely different level.

The 25-year-old Ohtake has designed and crafted an “organic” lobster of a non-edible variety. Here, the term organic applies to the fact that Ohtake’s lobster is made of wood rather than raised on an ecologically conscious shellfish farm!

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