Author: David

Modular robots can adapt and offer solutions in emergency scenarios, but self-assembling on the ground is a slow process. What about self-assembling in midair?

In one of our recent work in GRASP Laboratory at University of Pennsylvania, we introduce ModQuad, a novel flying modular robotic structure that is able to self-assemble in midair and cooperatively fly. This work is directed by Professor Vijay Kumar and Professor Mark Yim. We are focused on developing bio-inspired techniques for Flying Modular Robots. Our main interest is to develop algorithms and controllers for self-assembling modular robots that can dock in midair.

In biological systems such as ant or bee colonies, collective effort can solve problems not efficient with individuals such as exploring, transporting food and building massive structures. Some ant species are able to build living bridges by clinging to one another and span the gaps in the foraging trail. This capability allows them to rapidly connect disjoint areas in order to transport food and resources to their colonies. Recent works in robotics have been focusing on using swarm behaviors to solve collective tasks such as construction and transportation.Ant bridge. Docking modules in midair offers an advantage in terms of speed during the assembly process. For example, in a building on fire, the individual modules can rapidly navigate from a base-station to the target through cluttered environments. Then, they can assemble bridges or platforms near windows in the building to offer alternative exits to save lives.

ModQuad Design

The ModQuad is propelled by a quadrotor platform. We use the Crazyflie 2.0. The vehicle was chosen because of its agility and scalability. The low-cost and total payload gives us an acceptable scenario for a large number of modules.

Very light-weight carbon fiber rods connected by eight 3-D printed ABS connectors form the frame. The frame weight is important due to tight payload constraints of the quadrotor. Our current frame design weighs 7g about half the payload capability. The module geometry has a cuboid shape as seen in the figure below. To enable rigid attachments between modules, we include a docking mechanism in the modular frame. In our case, we used Neodymium Iron Boron (NdFeB) magnets as passive actuators.

Self-Assembling and Cooperative Flying

ModQuad is the first modular system that is able to self-assemble in midair. We developed a docking method that accurately aligns and attaches pairs of flying structures in midair. We also designed a stable decentralized modular attitude controller to allow a set of attached modules to cooperatively fly. Our controller maximizes the use of the rotor forces by generating the maximum possible moment.

In order to allow the flying structure to navigate in a three dimensional environment, we control thrust and attitude to generate vertical and horizontal translations, and rotation in the yaw angle. In our approach, we control the attitude of the structure in a decentralized manner. A modular attitude controller allows multiple connected robots to stably and cooperatively fly. The gain constants in our controller do not need to be re-tuned as the configurations change.

In order  to dock pairs of flying structures in midair, we propose to have two flying structures: the first one is hovering and waiting, meanwhile the second one is performing a docking action. Both, the hovering and the docking actions are based on a velocity controller. Using a velocity controller, we are able to dock multiple robots in midair. We highlight that docking robots in midair is one of the fastest ways to assemble structures because the building units can rapidly move and dock in three dimensional environments. The docking system and control has been validated through multiple experiments.

Our system takes advantage of robot swarms because a large number of robots can construct massive structures.



This work was developed by:

David Saldaña, Bruno Gabrich, Guanrui Li, Mak Yim, and Vijay Kumar.


Additional resources at:


Grasping objects is a hard task that usually implies a dedicated mechanism (e.g arm, gripper) to the robot. Instead of adding extra components, have you thought about embedding the grasping capability to the robot itself? Have you also thought about whether we could do it flying?

In the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, we are concerned about controlling robots to perform useful tasks. In this work, we present the Flying Gripper! It is a novel flying modular platform capable of grasping and transporting objects with the help of multiple quadrotors (crazyflies) working together. This research project is coordinated by Professor Mark Yim and Professor Vijay Kumar, and led by Bruno Gabrich (PhD candidate) and David Saldaña (Postdoctoral researcher).



Inspiration in Nature

In nature, cooperative work allows small insects to manipulate and transport objects often heavier than the individuals. Unlike the collaboration in the ground, collaboration in air is more complex especially considering flight stability. With this inspiration, we developed a platform composed of four cooperative identical modules where each is based on a quadrotor (crazyflies) within a cuboid frame with a docking mechanism. Pair of modules are able to fly independently and physically connect by matching their vertical edges forming a hinge. Four one degree of freedom (DOF) connections results in a one DOF four-bar linkage that can be used to grasp external objects. With this platform we are able to change the shape of the flying vehicle during flight and use its own body to constrain and grasp an object.

Flying Gripper Design and Motion

In the proposed modular platform, we use the Crazyflie 2.0. Its battery life lasts around seven minutes, though in our case battery life time is reduced due to the extra weight. The motor mounting was modified from the standard design, we tilted the rotors 15 degrees. This was necessary as more yaw authority was required to enable grasping as a four-bar. However, adding this tilt reduces the lifting thrust by 3%. Axially aligned cylindrical Neodymium Iron Boron (Nd-FeB) magnets, with 1/8″ of diameter and 1/4″ of thickness are mounted on each corner enabling edge-to-edge connections. The cylindrical magnets have mass of 0.377g and are able to generate a force of 0.4 kg in a tangential connection between two of the same magnets. This forms a strong bond when two modules connect in flight. Note that the connections are not rigid – each forms a one DOF hinge.

The four attached modules results in a one DOF four bar linkage in addition to the combined position and attitude of the conglomerate. The four-bar internal angles are controlled by controlling the yaw attitude of each module. For example, two modules rotate clockwise and other two modules rotate counter-clockwise in a coordinated manner.



Grasping Objects

Collaborative manipulation in air is an alternative to reduce the complexity of adding manipulator arms to flying vehicles. In the following video we are able to see the Flying Gripper changing its shape in midair to accomplish the complex task of grasping a wished coffee cup. Would you like some coffee delivery?




This work was developed by:

Bruno Gabrich, David Saldaña, Vijay Kumar and Mark Yim

Additional resources at: