You may think you know what a “drone” is. But the word “clearly means a lot of things to a lot of different people,” according to Dean Jansen, co-director of the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC), which took place in October. Jansen’s remark came while introducing one of the speakers at the multidisciplinary conference about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), with an emphasis on civilian applications. The opening speaker, Vijay Kumar, was particularly passionate about the differences between weaponized drones and civilians drones used for peaceful purposes. Kumar is a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, though currently on sabbatical leave to serve as the assistant director for robotics and cyber physical systems at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Political and international controversy over military applications has spilled into perceptions of how civilian drones are or could be employed in the U.S. for search and rescue, agriculture, mapping, wildlife monitoring and other helpful purposes--and that misperception has raised strong resistance to Kumar’s work. Although the tech community has supported him, protestors often demonstrate outside of his lab, holding posters with Kumar’s name on them.

Kumar develops aerial robots for civilian search and rescue operations. But the protesters are under the impression that he gives his work to the government to push advances in weaponized drone technology. They’ve mistakenly surmised this because he receives research grants from the government, yet his work is for strictly peaceful purposes. Vehemently opposed to lumping his inventions with the ones used on the battlefield, the roboticist insists they aren’t drones but “aerial robots.” Furthermore, he says, the term drones “implies my robots are stupid, and they’re not. They think for themselves.”

Kumar’s robots are designed to be first responders in emergencies such as earthquakes and fires. They are small, ranging in size from 20 to 75 cm in diameter, so that they can fly both indoors and outdoors. Equipped with sensors, the robots create situational awareness maps of a given space, which can include information such as radiation levels and temperature. They swiftly fly between 4.5 to 22.4 mph, though the fastest they’ve flown is 40 mph.

They augment their speed with swarm technology, which was inspired by the way birds innately understand how to fly in flocks. Swarm technology allows a human controller to give one command to the group of robots, as opposed to commanding each robot. The group members will then figure out how to work together to complete a task as efficiently as possible. As a result, the robots can create maps within seconds, figuring the quickest way to get into and out of an unfamiliar building.

Kumar hopes his robots will change the way people respond to emergencies. Before anyone rushes into buildings where accidents have occurred, for example, situational maps could be generated to not only let human responders know the layout of the building but to also let them know where dangers lie. By measuring radiation levels, Kumar’s aerial robot could have told the first responders who ventured into the contaminated Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan how much radiation was in which areas, before they were exposed to dangerously high levels. “We felt like we had the technology that could have helped,” Kumar says, but his robots weren’t at the scene.

Kumar’s former students Alex Kushleyev and Daniel Mellinger founded KMel Robotics in late 2011 in order to advance the technology they created together with Kumar. Although the company doesn’t sell the robots, they are definitely working towards that goal, says Mellinger.

About the Author: Julianne Chiaet writes about science and technology. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.