September 20th 2011
AS THE violins soar, a lone dancer lopes gracefully across the stage of the Joyce Theatre in New York. But this is no solo. Two UFOs playfully chase him and swoop through the air around him. Modern dance and robotics may seem an unlikely combination, but this summer a troupe called Pilobolus has been performing a routine called “Seraph” with the assistance of these special guests—aerial robots programmed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Pilobolus is known for dances that incorporate unusual elements. Few, though, have been stranger than the two four-rotored helicopters that accompanied Matt Del Rosario on the stage of the Joyce. The quadrotors, as they are known technically, are small surveillance robots made by a German firm called Ascending Technologies, and were controlled by members of the Distributed Robotics Laboratory (DRL) at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Robot flocking is one of the DRL’s specialities. Its researchers write programs that allow groups of machines to co-ordinate their actions without human intervention.
In the ten-minute performance of “Seraph” the quadrotors flit, flirt, rage, mourn and rejoice—or, at least, appear to do so in the eyes of the audience—by varying their speed and the fluidity of their motion. When the choreography demands that the robots “act happy”, for instance, they flutter like butterflies, a move not strictly necessary for security surveillance. They also have to swing like pendulums and jump like pogo sticks.
Most of this movement, it must be admitted, is the result of the skill of Wil Selby and Danny Soltero, the quadrotors’ pilots, rather than of the flocking software itself. But the DRL’s researchers still hope to learn something from the exercise. Dodging the dancer, for example, is providing insights into how the quadrotors might best fly through forests when they are doing their day jobs. And the lights sported by the robots—whose blink rate and colour mix varies with the intensity and emotion of the performance—are being adapted to give clues to human road users about a robot driver’s intentions in a project that might put a fleet of robot taxis on the streets of Singapore.
Mostly, though, it is just fun. According to Mr Soltero, people in the audience felt the two robots really had personality. As Itamar Kubovy, Pilobolus’ executive director, observed, “Looking at the same reality through different lenses can trigger ideas in different ways.” Who says art and science don’t mix?