Small flying robots can move faster than humans and other types of robots in some situations, such as in surveying buildings after an earthquake or other disaster.
Small unmanned aircraft operating in swarms can be a boon in post-disaster or search-and-rescue operations, but the current state of technology poses some problems, said Vijay Kumar, the UPS Foundation Professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Delivering the final keynote address at AUVSI's Unmanned Systems North America 2014, Kumar said small flying robots can move faster than humans and other types of robots in some situations, such as in surveying buildings after an earthquake or other disaster.
"You can put these things together and build a 3-D map of a collapsed building without actually entering the building," Kumar said.
His students developed one robot that was able to survey a damaged building in 2.5 hours, using its lidar to map the interior - which was far too slow.
"No emergency response worker is going to wait two and a half hours for the robot" to complete its map, he said. With small, swarming systems, "we'd like to do it in two and a half minutes … maybe two and a half seconds. There's no reason we can't do that."
There are many technological challenges in developing such swarms, he said. The robots don't necessarily need to be very intelligent to do it; they just need to know where they are and what some of the other robots are doing.
This poses control challenges, but his students have managed to overcome many of them, as is evidenced by the videos he showed of swarms of tiny UAS dancing around each other and, in one case, snatching up a burrito the way an eagle snatches up a fish.
Power is the big challenge for such systems, he noted.
"Anybody in the small UAV spaces knows this and will cry on your shoulder" about the short life of current batteries.
Flying requires a lot of energy, 200 watts per kilogram for hovering vehicles. By contrast, runner Usain Bolt requires 20 watts per kilogram, so "our robots are orders of magnitudes worse about power consumption than our best human athletes."
He said systems need a power source akin to tiny rocket engines, but "without that, in the next five years I don't see any magic with batteries, so you're stuck with that," although the continued miniaturization of electronic systems will help by cutting down on system weight.
AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano also presented the Member of the Year and Chapter of the Year awards at the session.
Member of the Year went to James Grimsley, who has been spearheading efforts to fight anti-UAS bills in Oklahoma and educating lawmakers and the public about their use.
"He's the person that we go to when we need anything from the state of Oklahoma," Toscano said.
Chapter of the Year went to the Cascade Chapter in the Pacific Northwest for the second year in a row for its successful events and advocacy for unmanned systems.
Accepting the award, Chapter President Eric Folkestad said, "We have a great team. We do a lot of events and have great enthusiasm."