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How can quadrotors change the future of engineering?

Graduate student Mark Cutler, in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, works on a quadrotor - on Sept. 27, 2011, in Cambridge, Mass.
Graduate student Mark Cutler, in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, works on a quadrotor - on Sept. 27, 2011, in Cambridge, Mass.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

As you watch YouTube videos of teeny, flying helicopter-drones buzzing to the James Bond theme or grabbing objects with eagle-like swoops, you might think that quadrotors aren't so much changing the future of engineering, but moving swiftly to the top of a child's Christmas list.

Because although the unmanned aerial vehicles (that's UAV for kids in the know) look like robot hornets from a Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, we mostly see videos of them behaving like sophisticated, remote control airplanes. You know, the toys you primarily used to attempt a swift, midair blow to a sibling's head.

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But quadrotors are being studied for far more than their uncanny routines that wouldn't be out of place in a synchronized swimming competition. Among others, the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania (and some of GRASP's graduates at KMel Robotics) is working hard to ensure serious utilization of quadrotors in future applications. Before we get into how quadrotors are changing engineering practices, let's go over what they are and how they've evolved.

You're not far off if you're picturing tiny, glorified helicopters. These little guys are autonomous machines, meaning they don't need a remote control or any human, period, telling them what to do. And some aren't so little. They come in a variety of sizes. Some can fit in the palm of your hand, some are big enough to scare the heck out of you if they're coming your way. And it's not just in robotics labs that this stuff is happening. A 2012 Kickstarter campaign by UAir reached its goal of $15,000 to build an affordable quadrotor kit ... and exceeded it, by collecting more than $220,000 in startup funds on the site [source: Kickstarter]. Keep in mind that this quadrotor is unmanned but still radio-controlled [source: UAir].

You may have noticed from the "quad" designation that these machines have four rotors (or propellers) placed on each corner. When the blades are all spinning at the same speed, the quadrotor hovers. Make a change -- even extremely slight -- in the speed of one rotor, and it can change direction. And how do these miniature little guys do it, without humans telling them?

The GRASP lab quadrotors have onboard processors and overhead motion capture cameras that tell them not just where they are, but also where they are in relation to other objects, like other quadrotors. Or walls. These cameras tell them 100 times per second where they are, and then 600 times a second their processor is telling them what to do with their rotors as they go [source: Kumar].

So with that background, we've proven that yes, quadrotors seem awesome. Little robot helicopters using algorithms to make decisions! Who needs more convincing?

But quadrotors aren't just a way for doctoral engineering students to goof off in the lab on the weekends. They're being developed for some extremely cool and useful purposes, some of which just might make an engineer's job a lot easier and safer.

One big deal way that quadrotors are lending a hand is by venturing into really dangerous places. It's similar to the role bomb-disposal units play, where robots may inspect or disable bombs. Except these bomb-sniffing robots (totally senseless name I just gave them) are being controlled by an operator and mimicking movements [source: Tarantolo]. Quadrotors are able to fly on their own, collecting information. No offense to our teeny robot friends, but nobody minds sending them in to unstable, collapsing buildings to map the location and pinpoint hazards. So imagine that the first responders to a disaster were actually robots designed to sniff out danger and send back data to engineers or even medics on the ground.

We've already seen them being used in places that no engineer could go. After the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011, quadrotors assessed buildings not far from Fukushima. They mapped the buildings without being harmed by the kind of nuclear radiation that damage weak humans, with their delicate organs and fragile sensibilities. These quadrotors can map and record locations in a building without knowing anything about its layout or design beforehand; GPS devices allow them to be operated from a distance, and the quadrotors themselves can detect locations and draw up detailed building plans from them.

Also potentially interesting to engineers is the fact that the quadrotors can actually lift and place things like beams or other construction materials. Now yes, these quadrotors are small. But remember you can get a group of them to communicate and work together to carry heavier payloads. Envision swarms and swarms of drones putting together a skyscraper.

Which means that robots could literally build a building. All you have to do is program the bots with an algorithm that tells them how to do it, and then they're basically off to the mines. And it's not just emergencies where quadrotors could be useful; they can do routine inspections for buildings, as well as general safety inspections for pipelines or the like [source: Dillow].

But even though the applications for quadrotors in the engineering field are far-ranging, it's important to note that no one really knows yet what the quadrotor is capable of. The technology is new, ever-improving and has no limits right now. Quadrotors are changing the face of engineering by helping engineers in the field, but pretty soon they might be replacing the engineers completely.

Author's Note: How can quadrotors change the future of engineering?

While it's clear that quadrotors have incredible potential in the engineering field (not to mention emergency response, construction, law enforcement and so on), it's safe to say that we're not really sure of the absolute best use for them yet. There are many commercial possibilities, but it will take a lot more research -- and a creative spark, no doubt -- to find their best use.

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