Drones to Atoms
Design and Engineering Innovations for Programmable Matter Substrates

research · ux design · robotics
technology and support from Bitcraze AB, Collmot Robotics Ltd, Qualisys AB
Designs using programmable matter powered by
Designs using programmable matter powered by “nanomolecules” from Star Trek: Discovery (2020)

Drones to Atoms pushes design and engineering forward to evolve aerial robotics into a creative design material.

Drones have already reached mainstream adoption by many professionals and hobbyists, mainly for surveying and photography. These applications use the drone is used as a sensor with great range and mobility.

In our research on what real-life users do with their drones, we interviewed professionals in fields ranging fine art photography, forestry, real estate, police, filmmaking, energy infrastructure, geology, and construction – all of them using the drone as a flying imaging device.

Since 2017 we have have been working on a design vision we dubbed Social Drones – autonomous drones in human-populated spaces – designing interactions where the drone is an actuator. Examples:

Drone Chi – drone-guided meditative movement exercise based on Tai Chi.

Wisp – interactive drone to motivate, teach, and augment breathing exercises.

BitDrones (2015) and GridDrones (2018) by Sean Braley and Calvin Rubens et al.
BitDrones (2015) and GridDrones (2018) by Sean Braley and Calvin Rubens et al.

Meanwhile, fellow scholars around the world have developed other innovations for “data physicalization” – interactive swarms, actuated grid systems, levitation…

inFORM (2013), zeroN (2011), and Programmable Droplets (2018) by the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group
inFORM (2013), zeroN (2011), and Programmable Droplets (2018) by the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group

Mechanical systems like these share certain challenges that stand in their way of becoming true programmable design materials:


Achieving high density and high precision with “atoms” made of real-time actuated robotic components requires high-performance mechanical, software, and communications systems.

Developing dense robotic swarms that behave like unified “matter” is theoretically feasible, but often economically unviable. Commodity DIY/educational drones and robots on the market are not engineered for high-precision swarm applications. New developments in hardware and software are needed to democratize swarm robotics.


Handling aerial swarm robotics as a design material is currently infeasible for designers due to a lack of tools and interfaces. Translating graphical and 3D designs to robotic actuation is a niche field of expertise with challenging economics.

Appropriate design tools for choreographed and interactive and experiences with swarm robotics would radically accelerate innovation in this field.

Our work investigates design and engineering innovations to conquer these challenges, building on a foundation of open-source technology and open innovation practices.

Selected Results