Super-group of quadrocopters to be showcased in SA

Mark Mueller
South African born Mark Mueller will lead the demonstration in Cape Town. (Image Credit: Raymond Oung, ETH Zurich).

A super-group of quadrocopters that work together and operate without remote control, are on their way to Cape Town to demonstrate their astonishing manoeuvres and feats. The roboticists that make these machines dance, build towers, catch balls and juggle poles are based at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), but will be in SA at end-August to give a free demonstration at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC).

South African born Mark Mueller will lead the demonstration in Cape Town. A graduate of the University of Pretoria, and the ETHZ, he says: “Quadrocopters are mechanically simple machines, so we build our own from ‘off the shelf’ components. Their acrobatic feats are, however, due to the sophisticated operating environment that we have developed and in which they work – the Flying Machine Arena (FMA). We are doctoral candidates from various backgrounds, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and robotics. Much of our time is taken up by creating the algorithms that instruct the quadrocopters where to be, and what to do within the FMA. In addition to the quadrocopters, our system includes laptop computers, two-way radios and a set of overhead cameras to create something like an indoor GPS.”

“Once we start a particular program, the system runs autonomously and the quadrocopters perform their acrobatic routines without human intervention. The captured data is then automatically analysed, allowing the quadrocopters to ‘learn’ from their experience and perfect their manoeuvres. This, together with the fact that the robots can work in pairs and teams, is what makes our work so unique,” Mueller adds.

The radio commands that instruct the high-speed machines are transmitted at 50 times per second, while the quadrocopters can accelerate upwards at 15 meters per second squared, and flip 2000 degrees per second, yet also balance objects and hover with millimetre precision. During their demonstration, up to six machines will fly at any one time – each about 50cm from tip-to-tip, and weighing 500g.

One day Mueller and the team would like to do away with the overhead cameras for even greater flexibility.  Their long-term approach is focused on research and development rather than on commercialisation. “I have always been fascinated by the rules that govern physical systems and how to make simple machines do complex things. I hope that enthusiasts of all ages will join our demonstration, but I’m particularly interested in showing learners what the possibilities are and to what extent these are within our reach,” Mueller concludes.

For those who wish to attend CTICC on Friday, 29 August 2014 at 16h15. Register for your free ticket here.