It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a...swarm of giant Honeycomb cereal? Swiss researchers are developing a robotic platform consisting of multiple single-propeller machines that autonomously dock with each other and take flight.
The Distributed Flight Array, under development at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control (IDSC), may look like a kid's remote-controlled toy, but it's a neat example of .
Each vehicle is simply designed, with wheels for ground motion, one propeller, a computer, and infrared sensors that measure the flight angle. They join at random through magnetic links and drive around together.
When it's time to take off, the modules hover for a bit and then fly to a predetermined altitude. They exchange information over a network, maintaining level flight for the whole platform by adjusting individual thrust. As seen in the video below, the researchers seem barely able to regain control of their creation once it takes flight.
The IDSC researchers have shown in simulated and experimental tests that the array can work with anywhere from 2 to 20 propeller vehicles. But they've only flown up to 4 joined together so far.
When it's time to return to the ground, the modules come apart. Their sturdy plastic construction can withstand the impact of a fall from more than 6 feet.
The IDSC group has been developing the array since 2008. Last month, their study was named one of the best conference paper finalists at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Anchorage, Alaska.
The researchers don't mention possible applications for the Distributed Flight Array, but a glance at other IDSC projects such as the autonomously balancing cube shows the institute is open-minded enough to pursue whimsical, artistic endeavors when it comes to robots. Building a swarm of intelligent hunter-killer flying bots must be the farthest thing from their minds.