In a robot lab at TEDGlobal, Raffaello D’Andrea demos his flying quadcopters: robots that think like athletes, solving physical problems with algorithms that help them learn. In a series of nifty demos, D’Andrea show drones that play catch, balance and make decisions together — and watch out for an I-want-this-now demo of Kinect-controlled quads.
Raffaello D’Andrea is professor of Dynamic Systems and Control, where his research focus is pushing the boundary of autonomous systems capabilities, with an emphasis on adaptation and learning. He also is technical co-founder and chief technical advisor for Kiva Systems, a Boston area high-tech company that has developed a revolutionary material handling system utilizing hundreds of autonomous mobile robots; Kiva has deployed installations worldwide, including a 1,000+ mobile robot system in the United States. He has exhibited his work at various international venues, including the Venice Biennale, Ars Electronica, the National Gallery of Canada, the Smithsonian, and the Spoleto Festival.
D’Andrea combines academics, business and the arts to explore the capabilities of autonomous systems. As part of his research as professor of dynamic systems and control at the Swiss federal institute of technology, he and his collaborators created works such as the self-destructing, self-assembling Robotic Chair, and designed a system that allowed quadrirotor drones to construct a 6-meter tower, brick by brick.
Roboticist D’Andrea explores the possibilities of autonomous technology by collaborating with artists, architects and engineers. The Flying Machine Arena he and his team created features airborne robots performing acrobatics, juggling balls and more, while the Distributed Flight Array is a flying platform consisting of multiple autonomous vehicles that are able to dock with their peers and fly in a coordinated fashion. His explorations also have practical business applications. He co-founded Kiva Systems, a robotics company that develops intelligent automated warehouse systems, and which was recently acquired by Amazon.
“Among the things D’Andrea tries to instill in students is working well in groups, which will no doubt help them become better engineers” -Cornell Chronicles.
D’Andrea is a recipient of the Invention and Entrepreneurship in Robotics and Automation Award, the United States Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, and best paper awards from the American Automatic Control Council, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the International Federation of Automatic Control. He was the faculty advisor and system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team, four-time world champions at the international RoboCup competition in Sweden, Australia, Italy, and Japan. D’Andrea has received the National Science Foundation Career Award, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Golden Owl, and several teaching awards in the area of project-based learning.
Spanning academics, business and the arts, Raffaello D’Andrea’s career is built on his ability to bridge theory and practice: He is Professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, where his research redefines what autonomous systems are capable of. He is also co-founder of Kiva Systems (recently acquired by Amazon), a robotics and logistics company that develops and deploys intelligent automated warehouse systems. In addition, he is an internationally-exhibited new media artist, best known for the Robotic Chair (Ars Electronica, ARCO, London Art Fair, National Gallery of Canada) and Flight Assembled Architecture (FRAC Centre, France).
If there is a difference between having ideas and knowing which ones are possible, there is an even greater difference between knowing which ideas are possible and knowing how to turn those into physical, working realities. Raff believes that this kind of knowledge comes best through hands-on experience and a deep understanding of the fundamental principles at work.
In retrospect, Raff considers himself lucky to have made it to adulthood. As a child he was fascinated by science and the physical world, and had a penchant for putting himself into his own scientific experiments. born near Venice, Italy, in 1967. He moved to Canada in 1976, where he graduated valedictorian from Anderson Collegiate in Whitby, Ontario, in 1986, and earned the Wilson Medal as the top graduating student in Engineering Science at the University of Toronto in 1991. He completed his formal studies at the California Institute of Technology where he was granted his Master of Science in 1992, and his PhD in 1997. Before moving to Switzerland, he was a professor at Cornell University from 1997 to 2007. While on leave from Cornell, from 2003 to 2007, he co-founded Kiva Systems, where he led the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and control algorithms efforts. In 2007 D’Andrea was appointed professor at the ETH Zurich.
D’Andrea learned about water pressure by jumping into a swimming pool with bricks attached to his legs and a garden hose attached to his mouth; knowledge of aerodynamic stability – or lack thereof – was gained by jumping from a rooftop with a lawn umbrella; he created hydrogen gas by electrolysis, and in the process flooded his basement with chlorine gas; the laws of inductance and Faraday’s law were painfully learned through the use of batteries, transformers, and his mouth as a poor-man’s voltmeter; innumerable experiments with fireworks, flammable liquids, gunpowder, and live ammunition resulted in several unplanned haircuts, and an appreciation for the incredible amount of energy stored in chemical bonds.
Raff combined his love for science with his need to create by studying Engineering Science at the University of Toronto, where he received the Wilson Medal as the top graduating student in 1991. Then, after cycling from Vancouver to Toronto on a mountain bike, he moved west to begin graduate studies in the area of Systems and Control at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he worked on two separate projects: very theoretical research on the optimal design of systems, and very applied research on the use of pulsed air injection to eliminate instabilities in jet engines. After receiving his PhD in 1997, he joined the Cornell faculty as an assistant professor, where he was a founding member of the Systems Engineering program, and where he established robot soccer – a competition featuring fully autonomous robots – as the flagship, multidisciplinary team project. In addition to pioneering the use of semi definite programming for the design of distributed control systems, he went on to lead the Cornell Robot Soccer Team to four world championships at international RoboCup competitions in Sweden, Australia, Italy, and Japan.
While on leave from Cornell, from 2003 to 2007, he co-founded Kiva Systems, where he led the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and control algorithms efforts. Kiva has deployed installations worldwide, including a 1,000+ mobile robot system in the United States. By the time Amazon acquired Kiva in May 2012 for 775M dollars, it was a 300-person company with a long customer list that included Walgreens, Staples, and Saks, with more than 30 warehouses deployed across Europe and North America.
Throughout his academic and business career, Raff has collaborated with artists, architects, and engineers to create dynamic sculptures. He has exhibited his work at various international venues, including the Venice Biennale, Ars Electronica, the Smithsonian, and the Spoleto Festival. In addition, his work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada (Robotic Chair, Table), the FRAC Centre in France (Flight Assembled Architecture), and the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Germany (Blind Juggler).
After being appointed professor at ETH Zurich in 2007, Raff established a research program that combined his broad interests and cemented his hands-on teaching style. His team engages in cutting edge research by designing and building creative experimental platforms that allow them to explore the fundamental principles of robotics, control, and automation.
His creations include the Flying Machine Arena, where flying robots perform aerial acrobatics, juggle balls, balance poles, and cooperate to build structures; the Distributed Flight Array, a flying platform consisting of multiple autonomous single propeller vehicles that are able to drive, dock with their peers, and fly in a coordinated fashion; The Balancing Cube, a dynamic sculpture that can balance on any of its edges or corners; Blind Juggling Machines that can juggle balls without seeing them, and without catching them. In addition, he is collaborating with scientists, engineers, and wingsuit pilots to create an actively controlled suit that will allow humans to take off and land at will, to gain altitude, even to perch, while preserving the intimacy of wingsuit flight. Playful and creative, each of these projects support his team’s natural instincts to be curious, explore and discover. And yet they also serve as real experimental platforms for developing new practical technologies.