Weekly Robot Update 006
Physically, the ALAVs are inflatable mylar envelopes with undercarriages made from light laser cut balsa. The hardware that went into the ALAVs is light, efficient and relatively simple. They propel themselves using helium buoyancy and five independent motors for thrust. Most of the parts and equipment was donated by Sun Microsystems. Including a special sensor platform called sunspot, which consists not only of a sensor array, but accelerometers, processing power and WiFi radios. Aditional circuits were specially designed for the ALAVs. As was the software for the blimps behavior and flight. The three robots were given distinct voices by attaching cell phone vibrators to the outside of the helium envelope, to create a resonate call that is eerily reminiscent of a whale's song.
The three ALAVs (Flipper, Habib, and Bubba) are autonomous. They decide on their own where and how they fly. The strength and uniqueness of these robots in is their biomimicry. You cant help but watch them and feel that they are in some way alive. The ALAVs attempt to flock whenever possible. Staying near at least one other ALAV at all times, and matching one another's flight plans. When one of the robots finds itself alone, it lets out a cry of distress, in an attempt to reconnect with the flock. LED lights underneath the ALAVs express hunger. When the light turns blue, the robot is hungry. They can then be fed by hand by a human handler using a special fiber optic sculpture that the ALAVs recognize as food. Together all of these behaviors create a life like ecology for the machines. Have a look at some of the surreal videos of the ALAVs in flight.
The three robots made their media debut at last months Maker Faire . They were quite a hit with the crowd. They were even filmed for an upcoming Beyond Tomorrow show and an episode of The Tonight Show. I see some practical applications coming out of these people friendly robots as well. If they could be made slightly larger and sturdy enough, they could carry their own Wireless Access Points. Give them some mesh networking software that works along side their flocking behavior, and you could create an instant city wide WiFi network, just by releasing dozens of these things into the air. Work their feeding behavior into software that monitors their power supply, and the robots could actually swoop down to special power stations and recharge their batteries when they are running low. Your network would not only be instantly deployable, but also self maintaining. And that's just one possible use for autonomous flocking blimps. I suspect we will be seeing much more of the ALAVs in the future. [inspired by Make]