In February this year, ETH Zurich professor Raffaello D'Andrea and his research team joined forces with ETH spin-off company Verity Studios for an awe-inspiring 11-minute performance at TED 2016 an internationally renowned ideas sharing platform for technology, entertainment, and design in Vancouver, Canada. D'Andrea's demonstrations included the Monospinner - the world's first flying machine with only a single moving part, an Omnicopter capable of flying in any direction, and a synthetic swarm of 33 micro quadcopters creating an impressive effect of swirling lights above the TED audience's heads.

While most flying machines have multiple moving parts - flaps, hinges, and ailerons, the Monospinner achieves controlled flight with just one propeller. "Even though it's mechanically simple, there's a lot going on in its little electronic brain to allow it to fly in a stable fashion and to move anywhere it wants in space," said D'Andrea during the TED 2016 talk. He also demonstrated the Omnicopter. With its eight propellers, the Omnicopter is the antithesis of the Monospinner. Its symmetrical design and cube-like shape makes it seem like an unlikely flying machine, yet D'Andrea demonstrated that it can fly in any direction independent of its orientation and rotation. Finally, ascribing human attributes to one of the flying machines – a high performance quadrocopter, D'Andrea hinted that it had aspirations of becoming a flying lampshade on Broadway.

Challenging paradigms with creativity

On Saturday, 5 March 2016, in a New York City venue not too far from Broadway, Raffaello D'Andrea's team from ETH Zurich's Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, ETH spin-off Verity Studios AG, and Cirque du Soleil won the "Featuring Drones" award at the New York City Drone Film Festival (NYCDFF) for their film "SPARKED: A Live Interaction Between Humans and Quadcopters." ETH Zurich researchers and entrepreneurs produced the film, the brainchild of D'Andrea, in the university's own Flying Machine Arena along with members of Cirque du Soleil. "SPARKED" features stunning choreographies with a mystical quality in a setting that juxtapositions an old fashioned lamp repair workshop with futuristic flying machines disguised as lampshades. The film's success, with more than a half million online viewers, prior to the NYCDFF award, demonstrates the value of using entertainment media to communicate, as well as, educate and engage people with advances in flying technologies.

Behind the technology of "SPARKED" lie years of academic research and the development of algorithms and customized technologies. ETH Zurich is one of the world's leaders in dynamic systems and control technologies. Motivating his team to think beyond current limitations and applications, D'Andrea helps them to unlock the mathematical secrets of complex dynamic systems. Through his own Socratic-like approach, he asks basic conceptual questions to stimulate critical thinking, such as, "What is the minimum number of moving parts needed for controlled flight?" Often such questions allow opportunities for researchers to test theoretical concepts and raise new challenges that go beyond immediate applications. As a result, words like "monospinner," "omnicopter," and "synthetic swarm" may soon enter our everyday vernacular and usher in a new era in the future of flying machines.