Sydney plays host to robots of the future: quadcoptors and self-sculpting sand

Leading international researchers descended upon the University of Sydney on July 9 as they kicked off one of the world’s largest robotic conferences – the 2012 Robotics: Science and Systems Conference. Spanning five days with more than 60 talks and 12 workshops, RSS 2012 delved into the latest developments in the various fields of robotics, including autonomous navigation, medical robotics, underwater robotics, and humanoid robots.

Self-sculpting sand

Photo: M. Scott Brauer

Imagine that you have a coffee mug. You take this mug and you bury it in a bag of this special sand. Moments later, you put your hand in to find not only the original mug, but a scale replica crafted out of the sand.

This is what the researchers at MIT’s Distributed Robotics Laboratory are currently investigating. Each of these cubic grains of sand contains a microprocessor and series of electropermanent magnets, which means that the magnets can be switched on and off by electronic pulses and retain their magnetic state without needing constant power. Using these magnets and an intelligently designed algorithm, they are able to communicate with each other, identifying the shape of the original object and then replicating it in a process similar to a sculptor carving a model out of a block of stone. The necessary particles would remain attached to each other, while the excess particles would simply detach and ‘fall away’.

The real world implications for this process are vast. “Say the tire rod in your car has sheared,” said Kyle Gilpin, lead author on the research paper, in a recent MIT interview. “You could duct tape it back together, put it into [the sand] and get a new one.” The algorithm could also be modified to create multiple copies of a single shape.

It may be a while until we see this reach a commercial development stage, however, as the engineering limitations of size and computational power restrict development. A prototype demonstrated features a series of 10mm cubes with magnets in only 4 of the sides.

Micro Quadrotors

The Quadrotor

What’s better than one robotic flying machine? A swarm of 20 in formation, doing synchronised aeronautical flips, zips and dives through the air.

The 4-bladed “micro quadrotors”, designed by a team at the University of Pennsylvania, weigh only 73 grams and have a diameter of 21cm. They can perform a 360 degree flip in 0.4 seconds, and move a full body length in one second. And there are no men with joysticks in the back – these machines operate autonomously.

Recently, the flying prowess of the quadrotors was shown off at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France. The robots featured in a spectacular display of lights and music titled “Meet Your Creator”, pulsing to the beat and bouncing light off specially equipped mirrors, while shuffling in figure-eights and various other formations.

Beyond entertainment, this invention could find usage in military and rescue operations, where the precision, size and customisability (for example,  sensors) of the robots would make it a suitable alternative to existing methods.

Joseph Wang is on Twitter: @jowoseph

With additional reporting by
Giovanni D’Urso


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