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EPFL Creates New Flying Robots

In disaster hit regions it takes a lot of time to set up emergency communication networks, which could prove to be an obstacle in the rescue efforts to save lives.

However, the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) has developed a new system of autonomous flying robots, which could help in creating an affordable and reliable emergency wireless network quickly.

At EPFL, in their Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS), the Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network (SMAVNET) research project was established to study and evaluate swarm intelligence, which is the science of artificial imitation of the efficient behaviors of the insect or animal colonies. According to Jean-Christophe Zufferey, a research scientist working at the LIS, the basic goal was to develop a system, which could be used in disaster affected areas. Initially, research was conducted on bio-inspired robots in 2001with the first artificial insect inspired by a fly, which could avoid hitting the ground and the walls. This was later tested outdoors.

Later on, the Flying Wing was developed, which was one out of the ten devices that fly together as a part of the SMAVNET Project. These Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) contain a lithium battery powered electric motor at the back, and are made from lightweight plastic foam. After being airborne, an autopilot manages the air speed, altitude and turn rate, and all the vehicles could avert collisions in mid air with the help of optical flow sensors. These sensors are located on the front side of the MAV, which helps it to change direction and also detect the distance between the vehicles. Zufferey states that the sensors were like the ones present in a computer mouse and were excellent optical detectors.

LIS reveals that they were inspired by army ants, which create pheromone paths from their nests right up to the food sources. A lot of data is presently being collected for the SMAVNET project, which would be used for the follow-up project named Swarmix. This project would help in determining how the robot swarms could be used to assist in relief work in disaster areas. The flying robots do not have to face difficult terrain and also do not need expensive sensors or radar equipment. However, they would need certain important modifications. The small MAVs have the capacity to stay in air only for 30 to 60 minutes, but according to Zufferey, solar technology could be used to improve this. A spin-off company, senseFly has been set up for the MAVs, which would be ready for the market in three or four years.



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