New drone technology emerges from Queen’s Human Media Lab

BitDrones enable users to construct complex 3D models

Roel Vertegaal, the director of the Human Media Lab, holds up one of the ShapeDrones.
Roel Vertegaal, the director of the Human Media Lab, holds up one of the ShapeDrones.

Researchers at the Queen’s Human Media Lab (HML) have unveiled drone technology that allows users to virtually construct three-dimensional structures. 

HML’s BitDrone system was unveiled earlier this month at the 28th annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The BitDrones system uses self-levitating nano-quadcopter drones — drones that use four small propellers — to create complex 3D models that translate toreal-time computer designs. Roel Vertegaal, the director of HML and a professor of human-computer interaction in the School of Computing, says he’s thrilled by the progress his team has made. 

Vertegaal said BitDrones are a first step toward developing high-quality, levitating programmable matter — material capable of being bent, curved and reshaped — at a moment’s notice.

“They sort of resemble flying LEGO bricks,” Vertegaal said, with a smile, “but the application goes beyond simple toys.”

BitDrones technology is different than previous virtual reality programs, Vertegaal said. It’s a “real-reality” interface, where users can interact with real material — meaning drones — without being hooked up to a headset or computer device. 

HML has developed three types of drones: ShapeDrones, DisplayDrones and PixelDrones. Each drone has reflective markers, allowing the system’s software to track the movement and position of the drones.

Vertegaal added that there are many technical issues that need to be addressed before the team can move forward. Most notably, the ShapeDrone’s relatively bulky size — 2.5 to 5 inches — can cause turbulence that impedes other ShapeDrones and causes them to plummet downwards, he said. 

Despite technical issues, Vertegaal said he’s confident they’ll be fixed and he’s looking forward to the future of BitDrones.  

“The next step is to scale [the drones] down. This will allow for precise modeling of increasingly complex objects,” he said. 

The current BitDrones system can only accommodate 5 to 10 drones at a time, but the HML team aims to make the system capable of supporting thousands of miniscule ShapeDrones in the future.

Fact Box

ShapeDrones allow users to direct and arrange floating objects in space with extreme precision. They represent the building blocks from which 3D models can be constructed. Each drone is equipped with a mesh cube frame and sensors that respond to hand motions and touch.

Once suspended, ShapeDrones maintain their position in the air, allowing users to walk around the 3D model and reposition them at the users’ discretion. The system operates as if an invisible string tethers the drones together, so when one ShapeDrone moves, the other drones reposition.

The DisplayDrone comes equipped with a high-resolution camera and a curved touchscreen Android smartphone, which allows users to teleconference via Skype. ShapeDrones will mirror any movements made by teleconferencing users, allowing them to direct the assembly of ShapeDrone models with basic head motions.

PixelDrones have a light-emitting diode (LED) and a small dot matrix display, which are used to indicate the boundaries of a 3D architectural model. When a user physically opens a file folder by touch, PixelDrones flying below will display its contents.

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