If you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve seen a few of these videos: flying robots flitting through windows, swarms of hovering machines moving in choreographed precision, miniature helicopters playing catch and assembling buildings or dancing. What distinguish these small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from their hulking military cousins isn’t just their agility, but their intelligence. These little machines are autonomous. Whether building walls or performing acrobatics, they perform their tasks without a human pilot sitting at the other end of a radio link.
Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion in the capabilities of these UAVs. Smaller, more power-efficient hardware for laptops and mobile computing have also brought about a revolution in aerial robotics. Ten years ago, research in automated flight needed big, fixed-wing RC aircraft that cost tens of thousands of dollars and could only be flown from airports. Now, it’s possible to fit the same abilities into a tiny helicopter that fits in the palm of a hand.