Before he became dean of the University of Pennsylvania's engineering school this summer, Vijay Kumar did more than teach, research, and publish in journals: He brought the small, quick, responsive flying robots his lab developed to an influential public, posting videos on websites.
Starting in 2010, Kumar's buzzing little four-propeller ships, winging out of his Levine Hall lab into the world, scored hundreds of thousands of hits on Gizmodo and YouTube. Lexus, the luxury-car maker, worked balletic flights of quadcopters built by KMel Robotics, a firm started at Penn, into a kinetic series of TV ads called "Swarm."
Kumar's public profile rose with his 16-minute TED Talk on applied air robotics in 2012. He reviewed the components of unmanned aircraft, contrasted familiar, exotic and scaled systems, scanned the math, then unleashed a gang of copters built by his students Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger. The two-ounce, four-rotor ships rose from steaming wrappings, hovered over a band stage, and played the "James Bond Theme" on keyboard, strings, and drums.
That got the attention of the drone-and-robot set. "He did a good job of presenting both a popular front and an academic front," says Charles Bergan, the vice president of engineering who oversees robotics at Qualcomm Inc., the San Diego-based wireless-communications maker. "We checked the technology-oriented blogs, then his academic work and his engagements. We saw these guys are the best in flight control."