Two recent demonstrations of autonomous quadrotor helicopter technology have sparked renewed interest in the potential for using automated robotics for construction and search and rescue operations.
In early December last year, ETH Zurich roboticist Raffaello D'Andrea and architects Fabio Gramazio and Matthias Kohler, also from ETH, created an art installation titled 'Flight Assembled Architecture' just outside of Paris.
The installation used a series of miniature quadrotor helicopters to autonomously build a six metre tower from Styrofoam blocks.
Four robots worked on the project at any one time, relying on detailed blueprints and a motion capture system embedded in the roof to accurately construct the tower at a rate of 100 blocks per hour.
On the other side of the pond, a research team at the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab recently uploaded a video to Youtube demonstrating their advancements in so-called 'swarm' technology.
The video shows twenty miniature quadrotors performing complex manoeuvres, navigating around obstacles and otherwise demonstrating what the team describes as "complex autonomous swarm behaviour."
While the technology demonstrated by these two teams is far from market ready, its potential applications are intriguing.
Larger versions of the building robots, for example, could potentially be used in the construction industry to erect buildings faster and more efficiently, while significantly reducing the occupational health and safety risks for associated workers.
While GRASP's demonstration has raised some concerns as to the use of similar technology for unauthorised surveillance operations, the ability of the quadrotors used in their experiment to successfully navigate obstacles points to some very useful potential applications in the area of search and rescue.
For example, rescue workers could potentially use a similar system to explore high risk areas, and to gain access to enclosed spaces that are too small for a human being to explore.
With the development of such advanced autonomous technology inevitably comes moral and ethical concerns over its use, but if utilised in the right way, self-guiding robots could be used in a variety of applications to complete tasks more efficiently, and importantly, with far less risk for human workers.