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Flying quadrocopters herald rise of the machines

Asher Moses (SMH) | April 8, 2011
Robots can already beat humans at chess and Jeopardy and soon they'll take us on in ping pong if a viral experiment in Zurich is any guide.

Robots can already beat humans at chess and Jeopardy and soon they'll take us on in ping pong if a viral experiment in Zurich is any guide.

A team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology has developed autonomous quadrocopters (helicopters with four blades) that are able to play ping pong against each other and juggle balls – all without any human intervention.

Aussies are already using similar technologies to film surfing competitions, while a German company has developed quadrocopters for traffic surveillance and crowd monitoring.

Quadrocopters are being used for everything from crowd control to surfing photography.

Quadrocopters are being used for everything from crowd control to surfing photography.

A video clip of the Swiss copters battling it out in the “Flying Machine Arena” has garnered over 1.5 million views on YouTube.

“There are cameras overhead tracking the quads and the ball; this information is filtered by some computers that also estimate where everything will be in the future and calculate a trajectory for the quadrocopter to follow,” said team member and PhD candidate Sergei Lupashin in an email interview.

“If everything works right then the quadrocopter hits the ball, aiming to hit it towards a certain spot.”

Professor Raffaello D'Andrea, who helped create the technology, said companies had already applied it to repetitive tasks such as the inspection and monitoring of highways, bridges and dams. There have also been applications in the military, crowd control and photography.

“German company AirRobot now sells quadrocopters as a more cost-effective and safer alternative to conventional piloted helicopters with successful applications in traffic surveillance, crowd monitoring, police enforcement and disaster coordination,” he said.

The autonomous quadrocopters are controlled by complex algorithms and Lupashin said it would be “quite difficult” to make it so that a person could control them, as you'd have to have super-fast reflexes and a good feel for the craft.

However, this is exactly what a team in Byron Bay, NSW, has done. Extreme Aerials builds its own camera-equipped quadrocopters from parts it orders from overseas and is building a business specialising in surfing aerial photography.

Bri Moreau, of Extreme Aerials, said in a phone interview that a professional pilot controlled the copter from the ground while Moreau separately controlled the camera via a feed on an LCD screen.

Yet another team has hacked the Xbox 360 Kinect accessory and strapped it on to a quadrocopter to enable it to fly on its own and navigate around a room without bumping into anything.

 

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