The genesis of the Flying Machine Arena (FMA) can be traced to various research projects that date back to the 1990s. The early design of the Flying Machine Arena originated from the same architecture that was used for Cornell University’s Robot Soccer Team in 1998 founded by Raffaello D’Andrea.

Our Story

Over the Years



Early traces

The Cornell RoboCup team featured vehicles with rudimentary local intelligence, an overhead vision system (which acted as a surrogate for GPS), a high-performance workstation for implementing computationally intensive tasks such as path planning, and a wireless link for sending commands to the robots.



Winner, RoboCup competition in Stockholm

After Cornell won the 1999 RoboCup competition in Stockholm, D’Andrea and his research team began to explore the possibility of extending the system beyond the soccer pitch and into the third dimension. They designed and built a series of high-performance aerial vehicles, developed systems to track and control them, and made plans to construct a test-bed in which to house it all.



Quadcopter prototype

In 2000, they built a quadcopter prototype, mounted LEDs on it, and used three cameras to determine the vehicle’s position and attitude. Engineering student Andy Eichelberger developed the first version of the system as a part of his Master of Engineering degree, which was then refined and used by Matt Earl as a part of his PhD thesis.



High performance quadcopter

In 2002, Master of Science students Eryk Nice and Sean Breheny began to build a high-performance quadcopter, which was then used by Oliver Purwin for his PhD research. With propellers that were each 45cm in diameter, this vehicle was much larger than the first one and could consume over 4000 watts of power at peak thrust. The driver for the vehicle’s size requirements was to support the high performance inertial measurement unit, which was a gold box weighing over 1 kg at the center of the quadcopter.



Cornell Laboratory for Intelligent Vehicles

In 2003, D’Andrea’s research team at Cornell received approval to convert the university’s High Voltage Laboratory – an empty 15,000 square foot building with 50-foot ceilings – into the Cornell Laboratory for Intelligent Vehicles. The goal was to transform the space into a test-bed for high performance air and ground vehicle control. At the same time, however, D’Andrea began a sabbatical to co-found Kiva Systems with partners Mick Mountz and Peter Wurman, and as a result, the plans were abandoned. It has since become a large space for student projects.



Kiva Systems & ETH Zurich

Five years later, Kiva Systems was well on its way to becoming a successful robotics and logistics company. D’Andrea decided to rejoin the academic world at ETH Zurich, which offered him the resources to construct a large, indoor space for flying vehicles: the Flying Machine Arena.

D’Andrea considers the five-year delay to be a blessing for multiple reasons. In the interim, high-performance motion capture systems for implementing indoor GPS functionality had entered the marketplace. Additionally, accurate solid-state accelerometers and rate gyros had become widely available, which replaced large and expensive units with similar functionality. Powerful rare earth magnet motors also became popular in this time period, resulting in high thrust-to-weight ratios for the power stages. Finally, wireless communication had become more reliable and easier to integrate into a multi-vehicle system. According to D’Andrea, “The time for the Flying Machine Arena had finally arrived.”



TEDGlobal 2013: Think Again

The Flying Machine Arena became the centerpiece of many academic projects as the estimation algorithms and the initial guidance and control systems were created. Over the following years, students and scientists alike used the Flying Machine Arena to advance the athletic capabilities of flying machines such as balancing an inverted pendulum and returning a thrown ball. D’Andrea was invited to showcase these achievements at the TEDGlobal 2013 program in Edinburgh, Scotland.



TED2016: Dream

D’Andrea was invited back to the TED stage for the TED2016 conference in Vancouver, Canada. He demonstrated the diversity and beauty of the flying machines that arose from the partnership of the Flying Machine Arena team and spin-off drone company, Verity. The featured flying machines include the monospinner, the omnicoptor, and a coordinated swarm of micro-quadcoptors.



Flying Machine Arena retirement

The Flying Machine Arena has supported more than 80 student projects and more than 60 scientific publications. It also has been shown to thousands of visitors and featured at a variety of events. Algorithms developed in the Flying Machine Arena are nowadays found in commercial unmanned aerial vehicles employed in numerous fields ranging from agriculture to entertainment. In 2019, the Flying Machine Arena closed its doors with a final demonstration given to prospective ETH students.