MIT hushing up swarmbot display tech?

Computers & Mobile Robotics
MIT hushing up swarmbot display tech?

On Wednesday morning, Evan Ackerman over at BotJunkie posted about MIT’s Flyfire system. The idea behind the system is simple and very exciting: Swarms of tiny LED-carrying robot helicopters arrange themselves in the air to make 2D or 3D displays in which each bot serves as a single pixel. Evan linked to the project’s homepage on MIT’s SENSEable City Lab server and embedded a video posted by the group to YouTube showing the individual prototype swarmbots, which already exist, and some computer renderings of what the working displays would look like. Exciting, eh?

Within an hour of Evan’s post going live, MIT took down the FlyFire page and the YouTube video. Or at least password-protected them. I can imagine why they might not want the traffic surge bogging down their own servers, but why yank the YouTube video? Why wouldn’t they want people paying attention to this project?

Update: Looks like both the project page and their YouTube video are publicly accessibly again. Dunno what was going on, but clearly it was non-shady. Thanks, guys!

14 thoughts on “MIT hushing up swarmbot display tech?

  1. Alan says:

    They might have feared jeopardizing their chances of publishing the work in a peer-reviewed journal. Most journals have strict policies about pre-publication disclosure of results. The work needs to be peer-reviewed and published through proper channels first, and then you can publicize it. Doing it the other way around is a no-no.

    There are some exemptions for presenting your data at scientific conferences, but releasing something onto the Internet definitely wouldn’t fit under that category. Perhaps an over-eager grad student or postdoc put this incredibly cool project online, and then their P.I. saw it, realized this would tank the team’s chances at publishing in a top-tier journal, and locked it behind a login screen.

    That’s all just speculation, though. Before going any further with the discussion, someone needs to pick up the phone, call these researchers, and ask them what’s up.

  2. RocketGuy says:

    I suspect that MIT was just doing some traffic management, as I can see the site publicly now. Having been slashdotted before, we too have had to occasionally block resources to re-establish a functioning network and then allow access a bit later when the traffic has become more tolerable. Doesn’t happen as much anymore, but I’m not surprised if that’s the deal here.

    Anyway, I’m having no trouble seeing the video.

  3. says:

    My guess would be that there is Department of Defense funding or some other such organization. I have worked on a dozen or so different projects (computer simulations of metamaterials), and one or two have had public disclosure rules attached to them.

    I mean, just think about the idea of small, hand held, maneuverable, autonomous robots in an urban setting. These could save lives by providing rapid and localized intel.

    Sure, this is a benign and fun application of the technology, but if the tech is being developed for a government agency, secrecy is an important component.

  4. sdedalus2000 says:

    My guess is we will be seeing “MIT POWNS!!!” over a football field somewhere soon.

  5. Daniel T says:

    How hard can it be to recreate this? Couple of cheap toy heli’s bulk bought from china, some extra electronics, computer control system.

    I’d imagine we’d see a clone of this soon enough.

    That’s not to subtract from the fact that this is a fantastic idea… why no one ever though of it before I don’t know, very clever MIT.

  6. MIT hushing up swarmbot display tech? jktechwriter says:

    One strong gust of wind could mess this up, right?

    The control required to synchronize these little fellows is probably going to involve some serious processing power – each device is going to be subject to a variety of conditions – wind, battery life/strength, proximity to other devices – all these factors have to be managed and coordinated at super-fast speeds, both with sending and receiving. I just wonder about the weight and battery power of these devices once all the proper sensors are added as well as the communication hardware.

  7. BrodersenMan says:

    These do not fly independently of each other. Each one is affected by its neighbors turbulence. It is hard to fly a tiny RC heli next to other helis since the induced turbulences involved make flying somewhat unpredictable. Now if you start to group hundreds of these together you begin to develop a very complex chaotic system, which is very hard to control.

    Although, perhaps it was mentioned in the article and I missed it, you might have a bunch of these flying in a swarm, where their location requirement is that they do not collide and they stay within a certain area which contains the whole swarm. Whereby, you could have each heli or “pixel” periodically determine its approximate location in time and space, and from that determine what color and intensity it needs to be at that time and location. This would probably much easier to control and be more interesting to look. It would also allow for the image quality to be somewhat impervious to wind currents.

    If one had a lot of time on their hands they could attach a bunch of light pixels with circuitry onto a swarm of a thousand birds. Then you could sell advertising to McDonals and have the swarm of birds display adds while in flight or in a tree. It would be awsome

    Wow, I just realized that I should be a mad scientist and start the commercialization of animals as advertising mediums.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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