Penn Engineering’s Kumar says FAA grounding won’t halt growing drone interest

Vijay Kumar delivers the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture in Jacobs Believed In Me Auditorium. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University)

Aerial robot superstar Vijay Kumar gets that there are good reasons for the Federal Aviation Administration to look askance at drone use. There are 15,000 of them sold each month in the U.S. alone, with no standard safety regulations or training for users.

Even a drone weighing about a pound can hurt someone if it falls from 10 feet, Kumar said. Plus they’re hackable and, of course, they’re taking pictures that some subjects might not want taken.

But the research shouldn’t be stopped, Kumar contends. It can’t be.

“We cannot let the negatives slow down the positives,” he said. “If we had done that, I don’t think we would have pursued nuclear medicine, and I couldn’t have taken an MRI of my knee, as I did last week. As researchers, we need to push the positive as much as we can.”

Kumar, dean of Penn Engineering, delivered Vanderbilt University School of Engineering’s John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture on Monday to a standing-room-only crowd in Jacobs Believed in Me Auditorium.

Little wonder students and their professors packed the room. A popular TEDx speaker and frequent award-winner, Kumar was first to work on robot swarms – the idea of multiple robots moving autonomously, communicating with each other. His creative theoretical, algorithmic and experimental work on cooperating robots transformed the science of robotics systems and informed the field of cyber-physical systems.

Kumar's lecture drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Many non-engineers know his work from a groundbreaking “Amazing in Motion” Lexus commercial, where Kumar’s aerial robots move in ballet-like formations through a museum, hair salon and grocery store.

The first question a Vanderbilt student asked him was about the FAA, since the agency grounded drones in public spaces nationwide pending safety and other regulations due in summer 2016. It is routinely issuing exemptions to companies using them for inspections and measurements.

Kumar brought no robots with him for Monday’s lecture, but his presentation included video of them doing remarkable things at the University of Pennsylvania. Taking a cue from bald eagles’ hunting patterns, one swoops down to pick up a cheesesteak in its talons. Another perches on a vertical pad. Others move seamlessly through mounted hula hoops and even through hoops being tossed into the air.

The aerial robots are inherently underactuated – difficult to force through predetermined trajectories. Kumar took the crowd through his calculations that overcame that issue.

Click here for a photo gallery from the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture.

Perhaps the most obviously useful ability he demonstrated was instant 3D mapping, accomplished by flying an aerial robot down the halls of a Penn building. Instantly, a digital map of everything it saw appeared on a computer screen: doors, drinking fountains, even items junking up a lab space.

To get that result, Kumar’s team had to integrate information from varied inputs: GPS, laser scanner, pressure altimeter, stereo camera, downward camera and inertial measurement unit. All those are fed through a multiple sensor unscented Kalman filter.

“When companies like Amazon talk about dropping off packages, one of the things I don’t think they’ve thought out well enough is how you’re guaranteed to lose GPS once you get in the shadow of tall buildings, which is in most of Philadelphia,” he said.

One of the newest inventions out of Kumar’s lab is an aerial robot that’s 11 centimeters from tip to tip and moves at 6 meters per second – the equivalent of a 787 airplane flying at Mach 50, he said.

Established in 2002, the John R. and Donna S. Hall Engineering Lecture Series allows Vanderbilt engineering students to hear renowned engineers from universities and agencies address engineering topics of particular interest.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
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