A swarm of 10 bright blue drones takes off in a bamboo forest in China, then swerves its way through the woods, avoiding tangled branches, bushes, and uneven ground as it autonomously navigates the optimum flying path.
The experiment, led by Zhejiang University academics, evokes scenes from science fiction films, with the authors citing “Star Wars,” “Prometheus,” and “Blade Runner 2049” in the beginning of their research published Wednesday in Science Robotics.
“Here, we take a step forward (to) such a future,” wrote the team, led by Xin Zhou.
Aerial mapping for conservation and disaster relief operations are just two examples of real-world uses. However, the technology must advance so that flying robots can adapt to new situations without colliding with one another or objects, putting public safety at risk.
Drone swarms had previously been tried, but only in wide spaces without impediments or with the location of such obstacles programmed in, according to Enrica Soria, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne who was not involved in the study.
“This is the first time there’s a swarm of drones successfully flying outside in an unstructured environment, in the wild,” she said, adding the experiment was “impressive.”
The palm-sized robots had depth cameras, altitude sensors, and an on-board computer. The most significant advancement was a sophisticated algorithm that combines collision avoidance, flight efficiency, and swarm cooperation.
Swarms could be used during natural catastrophes because these drones do not rely on any external infrastructure, such as GPS.
For example, they could be dispatched to earthquake-stricken areas to assess damage and determine where assistance should be provided, or to buildings where people should not be sent.
Single drones may certainly be used in such situations, but a swarm approach would be significantly more efficient, especially considering the short flight periods.
Another option is to have the swarm lift and deliver big goods collectively.
Swarms could be weaponized by militaries in the same way that single remote-piloted drones are today. The Pentagon has indicated interest several times and is conducting its own testing.
“Military research is not shared with the rest of the world just openly, and so it’s difficult to imagine at what stage they are with their development,”said Soria.
The Chinese team tested their drones in different scenarios—swarming through the bamboo forest, avoiding other drones in a high-traffic experiment, and having the robots follow a person’s lead.
“Our work was inspired by birds that fly smoothly in a free swarm through even very dense woods,” wrote Zhou in a blog post.
The challenge, he said, was balancing competing demands: the need for small, lightweight machines, but with high-computational power, and plotting safe trajectories without greatly prolonging flight time.
For Soria, it’s only a matter of a few years before we see such drones deployed in real-life work. First, though, they will need to be tested in ultra-dynamic environments like cities, where they’ll constantly come up against people and vehicles.
Regulations will also need to catch up, which takes additional time.
Journal Information: Science Robotics