A work of art in the depths of a cave



During the summer of 2015, a pleasant surprise awaited visitors to the La Verna cave in Pyrénnées, France: illuminated two-metre cubes floated in the vast underground space. However, these cubic automata, known as "aerostabiles", were more than just a treat for the eyes: they also had a scientific mission that consisted of exploring the hitherto inaccessible cavities in the roof of the cave. Equipped with video cameras, the cubes transmitted real-time images of the unexplored corners of the cave. They were chosen over drones for several reasons, including their four- to five-times longer flight times and the stability of their mechanism under extremely cool and humid conditions.

The flying cubes have become increasingly intelligent through a combination of computer, robotic and artistic systems.

The aerostabiles float in the air by means of a urethane bladder filled with helium. Their movements in space are controlled by turbines and an on-board computer. These flying robots were initially created as part of a technological art project by artist/researcher Nicolas Reeves and engineer David St-Onge, of UQAM's School of Design. Researcher Philippe Giguère, from the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Université Laval, then joined the project to improve the automata's movements, autonomy and control. The flying cubes have become increasingly intelligent through a combination of computer, robotic and artistic systems. Sophisticated algorithms, video cameras and sensors enable them to position themselves autonomously in space and to interact with the human voice or with dancers. Their faces can also serve as projection screens for videos or text messages sent by spectators.

The researchers are now working on optimizing the robustness and interaction capabilities of the aerostabiles. They are also trying to reduce the need for helium, a rare gas that is increasingly expensive. Rumour has it that an artistic/scientific exploration may soon take place in the newly-discovered cave in Saint-Léonard, near Montréal…

Video on the project