Flying machines and falling men | The American Ceramic Society

Flying machines and falling men

University of Pennsylvania researchers demonstrate swarming capability with a fleet of saucer-sized flying robots. Credit: GRASP, U. Pennsylvania; You Tube.

Two stories about flight flitted across my field of view this week. One makes a lot of sense to me; the other does not. But, don’t let me influence you.

First up. The University of Pennsylvania GRASP Lab released a video of flying robots maneuvering in swarm-like formations. The machines are called “Nano Quadrotors,” to reflect their small size (about the size of a small saucer) and their four helicopter-like rotors.

The video shows the swarm flying in formation in three dimensions, flipping and navigating around obstacles. The video finishes with a marching band-like figure eight routine that is really impressive. I kept waiting for a crash that, of course, never came.

The project website says the project “brings together experts in artificial intelligence, control theory, robotics, systems engineering and biology with the goal of understanding swarming behaviors in nature and applications of biologically-inspired models of swarm behaviors to large networked groups of autonomous vehicles.” According to a story on, the swarming robots are being considered for military and natural disaster missions.

GRASP is the acronym for General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception and is an interdisciplinary laboratory that draws on the combined expertise of the university’s computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering departments. Funding has grown to $10 million.

Second up, or actually, down. A colleague showed me this story about extreme skydiver, Felix Baumgartner, and the space suit that was designed to protect him during his planned supersonic, 23 mile free fall from the edge of space.

A specially designed suit will protect Baumgartner from the extremes of temperature that will be as low as -56°C and pressures so low they could cause his blood to boil, an effect known as ebullism. According to a blog post on the Red Bull Stratos website, temperatures vary high-to-low and low-to-high in the different atmospheric layers, so the suit needs to respond to delta Ts that are positive and negative. Read more about the suit on Red Bull Stratos’ website or in the older story on The Engineer.

The project appears to be the sole project of Red Bull Stratos. A lawsuit in 2011 delayed things for awhile, but it was settled late in the year, clearing the way for work on the jump to proceed apace. According to the website, planning for the jump dates back to 2005.

As to the merits of the project, RBS’ website claims these scientific contributions as justification.

• To aid development of a new generation of space suits – including enhanced mobility and visual clarity – and other systems to lead toward passenger/crew exit from space.
• To aid development of protocols for exposure to high altitute/high acceleration.
• To aid exploration of the effects on the human body of supersonic acceleration and deceleration, including development of the latest innovations in parachute systems.

There have been steady posts to the RBS blog this year, so perhaps we may hear about Felix and his stunt this later this year.