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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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I.F.L.Y. is a project that envisions a future where robots are integrated into our daily lives in both the real and virtual worlds.

Taking the form of an autonomous flying balloon, this pre-programmed robot interacts with humans giving an illusion of its unique personality. Developed as a speculative open-source concept, individuals can customize the robot’s behavior creating their own relationship and emotional bonds with their I.F.L.Y. robots.


The research began by studying Braitenberg Vehicles to understand how robots with simple reactive design can show complex behaviors. Four experiments with a Sphero robot were conducted to explore the interaction between the person and the robot. It’s interesting to see how the person reacts to the robot approaching. She not only moved with the robot but also showed different emotions responding to the robot’s various behaviors. In Braitenberg’s book Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology, he compares the simplest vehicles to the animals in a constructive way, proposing concepts of spatial behaviors, group formations, and fake intelligence.

Different balloon materials, propellers arrangements, and flying mechanisms were tested and improved during the process. Six different movements were achieved by evenly distributing two propellers horizontally and two vertically on the balloon.


In order to fly the robot balloon autonomously, real-time feedback motion tracking with Optitrack cameras and PID control was implemented in the computational system. In the #prototypesinpublic exhibition at Tate Britain, one helium-inflated drone balloon robot was exhibited in an enclosed space where two visitors were invited to interact with it every fifteen minutes. The robot’s path was determined by an algorithm, which moved the balloon towards the closer visitor among the two while taking both visitors’ velocity into calculation when deciding its own velocity.


In order to manifest the relationship between the balloon robot and the person in space, we build a virtual scene where the I.F.L.Y. robot is in real-time drawing out its flying path following the person.
As a result, the three-dimensional lines drawn by the balloon robot becomes the virtual environment where it co-exists with the person.

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Key References:

Braitenberg, V. Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Bradford books: Psychology. MIT. Press,1986

Diana Nowacka, Nils Y. Hammerla, Chris Elsden, Thomas Pl¨otz, David Kirk. Diri – the actuated helium balloon: a study of autonomous behaviour in interfaces(2015)

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Georg Simmel, “The Stranger,” in his Sociology (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press, 1969). See also Alfred Schutz, “The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology,” American Journal of Sociology 49 (1944).

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Kahneman, D. and Egan, P. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Random House Audio.

Liu, S. (n.d.). Creating autonomous vehicle systems.(2018)

Metzinger, T. (2011). The ego tunnel. [New York]: RHYW.

Nowacka, D., and Kirk, D. Tangible autonomous interfaces (tais): Exploring autonomous behaviours intuis. In Proc. of TEI ’14 , ACM (2014), 1–8.

Ross Mead, Amin Atrash, and Maja J Matari. “Automated Proxemic Feature Extraction and Behavior Recognition: Applications in Human-Robot Interaction,” International Journal of Social Robotics.

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Von Foerster, H. 2003. Cybernetics of Cybernetics. In: Understanding Understanding. Springer, New York, NY: Springer, pp.283- 286.