Like a mother bird bringing food to a chick, imagine tiny, flying robots delivering personalized air mail. The video below of the miniature flying devices – called nano quadrotors — offers some idea of the potential.

The video, made by the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, shows researchers testing the small flying robots, and the results of this basic research could help improve human systems, such as air traffic control. Another idea for this technology is to use “small aircraft that can carry personalized payloads — drugs, biomedical products — to rural and undeveloped neighborhoods…,” says, principal investigator Vijay Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering and computer information science at Penn.

The research group is drawing lessons in movement from flocks of birds, swarming insects and schools of fish, which might also help uncover patterns useful for crowd studies —  the design of “exits and hallways to ensure speedy evacuation in an emergency,” Kumar says.

Compared with, say, drones, which are large, pilotless aircraft, each of which requires a dedicated ground crew of five to 10 people, Kumar’s group is developing tiny, “highly maneuverable flying machines inspired by nature. They are autonomous and fly in groups. Only one person is needed to command large groups….” Many vehicles can be deployed in a swarm “to carry out a simple task — in this case, to form 3-D patterns — and to respond as a group to high-level commands — without a designated leader,” Kumar says. The innovations achieved have led to “new algorithms, novel vehicles, and a new paradigm.”

Kumar worked on the GRASP project with Alex Kushleyev, who holds a Master’s degree in electrical and systems engineering from Penn, and Daniel Mellinger, who will complete his Ph. D. in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics this spring. Penn’s GRASP Laboratory — the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception Laboratory — integrates computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

Already some of the lessons learned are moving from the lab to the workbench. Mellinger and Kushleyev have created a spinoff from the GRASP Laboratory – KMel Robotics — which develops robotic platforms for use in search and rescue, environmental monitoring and education.