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Tiny flying robots not just for sci-fi movies

  • Machines fly in formation, navigate obstacles
  • Quadrotors could be used for search and rescue, surveillance

They're tiny, unmanned aerial vehicles -- called quadrotors -- that make spinning circles in mid-air and fly in formation.

This isn't happening on a Spielberg set and this isn't science fiction. These buzzing 'bots are the real deal.

"This is a robot that's completely autonomous," says Ph.D. student Matthew Turpin, "and by that I mean there's no remote control in the background."

The research is being done at the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception) Lab.

WATCH: An iPad on wheels?

The brainiacs behind this mind-boggling technology give the robots simple commands via computer, but the vehicles decide how to get from point A to point B on their own.

"We have the Vicon system, or the red lights, which allow us to figure out where the robot is," Turpin explains, "then we're able to send it commands about what we'd like it to do and group behaviors that you'll see."

Other quadrotors at the GRASP Lab have worked together to carry cargo, build structures and have been equipped with cameras and lasers to create 3D images inside buildings.

Former GRASP Lab Director and University of Pennsylvania professor Vijay Kumar took them to the disaster zone in Japan after the 2011 earthquake. "We went into a collapsed building, we mapped three floors," says Kumar in a phone interview with CNN. "wW got three dimensional maps and we were able to show that this sort of thing is feasible today."

Read more: Military testing 'Mule' robot

There are plenty of positive uses for quadrotors. But if stealthy, camera-toting robots give you the willies, you're not alone. Kumar often fields questions about misuse of the technology and privacy concerns.

"I think we should engage in a public dialog about when to use them, what the potential benefits are and recognize that we can protect ourselves against abuse of these devices -- as opposed to saying we don't want to develop this," he explains.

For now, most of the research on these robots is still done in the lab.  But you could say their potential is sky high.

VIRAL VIDEO: Flying Robots: Nano quadrotors unite!

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