When the drones go dancing

We don’t often get a chance to test the future before it arrives, and sometimes we don’t believe it when it’s demonstrated before our eyes.

In the world of remote-controlled drones, we have such a possible but seemingly improbable future arriving. Amazon has tested the drone future with parcel delivery via remote control, and innovators like GoPro are demonstrating it through dramatic selfies taken from tiny quadrocopters.

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Now imagine fleets of these drones operating in concert with each other, enhancing activities ranging from stage performances tocrowd management to public services? In the real world, as opposed to the Hollywood version.

In this world, drones are referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the industry emerging around these gadgets is not the toy or weapons industry, but that of automatic control.

At a conference in Cape Town this week, visitors and delegates will be able to watch this future in action. The event is called the World Congress of the International Federation of Automatic Control, and is no less than the 19th annual edition – taking place in South Africa for the first time.

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At the event, a team of “roboticists” from the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) will choreograph a squad of autonomous quadrocopters, showing how they practically dance with each other in the air, collaborate, and learn as they fly. South Africa isn’t only hosting the event, but is also contributing a participant in the ETHZ team: Mark Müller, a graduate of the University of Pretoria (UP), now working on a doctorate at ETHZ.

He received a masters degree in mechanical engineering from ETHZ in 2011 for a thesis entitled “Quadrocopter ball juggling”. It earned him the Jakob Ackeret prize of the Swiss Aeronautical Association.

“When I was studying at UP, I had no idea I could go in this direction,” he says. “Robotics was always a very abstract faraway idea, but people who are smart and interested in it can go off and start working on it right now. It has huge potential in the future. We hope to give high school and university students an idea of what’s happening out there and show it’s within their reach.”

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Ironically, for someone who can make quadrocopters dance in the sky, his interest is less in the hardware than in control systems.

“For us, the focus in not so much on the application of the technology, but how to develop the tools to make these vehicles behave in a desirable way,” he says.

“Our focus is on developing algorithms to control complicated systems, and quadrocopters are one example. But at the same time, quadrocopters have high potential and people are very excited about using them for all kinds of things. The most obvious is taking photos and videos from the sky, and a lot of people already offer this as a service.”

Müller describes Amazon’s drone-delivery concept as an offshoot of an older idea: the Internet of Packages. It is spearheaded by a company called Matternet, which describes its approach as “the lowest cost, lowest energy, lowest ecological footprint, most easy to set up, most easy to reconfigure” transportation system it has yet created.

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“They want to deliver goods – like medicines in Africa – using multicopters to deliver to hard-to-reach places,” says Müller. “The idea is that the vehicles are easy to maintain and manage – and if you have a network of these vehicles and deliver packages from node to node, it works a little like how the internet delivers packets of data to computers via nodes spread across the internet. They want to deliver real packages in the same way. ”

Meanwhile, the ETHZ team will repeat a demonstration conducted by Müller’s doctoral supervisor, Professor Raffaello D’Andrea, for a TED Talk. It includes quadrocopters playing badminton, balancing a stick upright, carrying a glass of water around and flying even after the removal of one or two props – and, finally, dancing to music.

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