Flying Robots: Customized and Cooperative
Academic engineers worldwide have a new resource for accelerating discoveries in the science of agile and cooperative flight by small, unmanned robots. KMel Robotics, a company founded in late 2011 by two graduates of Penn's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Laboratory, customizes quadrotors, flying robots with four propellers that weigh between 50 grams to 4 kilograms. Co-presidents and Penn Engineering alumni Alex Kushleyev, M.S., an electrical engineer, and Daniel Mellinger, Ph.D., a mechanical engineer, offer expertise needed by scientists and engineers to refine these devices for research that will advance algorithms, sensing capabilities and control mechanisms for group cooperation and autonomous flight.
After a video posted online by the firm went viral in early 2012, non-academic customers, particularly in environmental monitoring and search and rescue, also became keenly interested in KMel's capabilities. In the video, viewed by 6 million people within two months, a team of 20 quadrotors perform like an aerial circus, executing a double flip in a half second and a sequence of complex aerial formations including figure eights.
"We're the first ones ever to fly so many vehicles in
formation at the same time," says Kushleyev. "Nobody
else has been able to do that. It takes great accuracy
and precision of control for positions in space and
time. Our customers can now harness the creativity
we have to offer. Once they tell us their exact needs
and research goals, we will design, build and program
custom quadrotors that will accelerate their path
Situated a mile from the Penn campus in West Philadelphia, KMel is clearly positioned for growth as a subcontractor or prime contractor on research partnerships with universities worldwide, including Penn."They're developing high-end platforms and are the best team to help us go from theory to algorithms to practice," says Vijay Kumar, UPS Foundation Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), Deputy Dean for Education and GRASP Lab member. "We are naturally eager to have them involved in collaborative research. There are things only they can do at this point."
KMel customizes far beyond the capabilities of off-theshelf quadrotors used primarily by electrical, mechanical and computer engineers. Its technology is not used for surveillance or military applications, and is fundamentally different in scale and autonomy from military drones that require a flight crew, are remotely piloted and fly at high altitudes.
While other graduates of the GRASP Lab have achieved research breakthroughs with similarly marketable technologies, Kumar says, "Ultimately it's about the creativity of the students and their will to make something big out of it. That's the distinguishing factor here. When companies are spun off by universities, it's often the students who do it because they have the energy and will to make it happen."
Kumar is an advisor to KMel but has no financial stake."One of the reasons I continue to stay in academia is the impact I have mentoring students who will go out and become leaders in their own right," he says. Mellinger can speak to the value of that approach. "I'm really lucky to have worked with Dr. Kumar these past few years. He's been a huge supporter of our work," he says. "Plus, the GRASP Lab integrates every type of robotics expertise needed and offers a range of research projects that really prepare engineers for life after Penn."
To facilitate future GRASP and Penn Engineering spinoffs, Kumar is helping to develop a short course for doctoral students on intellectual property that will help them pursue valuable ideas beyond academic publication. "Success is contagious," he adds. "We should celebrate their achievements and cultivate that path for others."
Read the full article in Penn Engineering magazine, "Flying Robots: Customized & Cooperative," by Jessica Stein Diamond.