A research team from Zhejiang University in China says it has developed technology that would facilitate swarms of drones to operate fully autonomously, without the small unmanned crafts crashing into one another.
Inspired by how birds almost instinctively fly through wooded areas without collision, the team believes the breakthrough will allow conservationists and ecologists the ability to map and survey large swathes of land in the most timeous manner possible.
Drones are limited to a very brief window of operation. Large battery packs and motors would be far too heavy for a standard drone to lift in conjunction with whatever surveying instruments or payloads need to be carried. To counter this, drone engineers and operators have viewed swarms of drones over a larger area.
Disaster relief efforts could be aided by an army of drones, said team lead, Xin Zhou. For example, a region devastated by an earthquake is often vast and, depending on the scale of the destruction, difficult for rescuers to ascertain where to divert their resources. A swarm of drones could quickly and effectively map the entire area, providing crucial intelligence for relief efforts.
Zhou and his colleagues purpose-built the roughly palm-sized drones for their experiment. Each unit is equipped with an arsenal of sensory equipment, including depth cameras, altitude sensors and an onboard computer.
It’s the drone’s clever software that allows them to work as a team. Previous efforts at drone swarm technology have relied on each drone using GPS to coordinate its flight pathing and keep a safe distance from its nearest teammate.
The research team decided to forgo GPS and created an algorithm that manages the flight pathing of each drone, letting them fly freely, independently and close to one another without the fear of a potentially dangerous and expensive mid-air collision.
Unlike with GPS, using the advanced algorithm also lessens the drone’s reliance on infrastructure, allowing it to operate in less than ideal scenarios.
To prove their method, the team let loose ten of their bright blue drones in a dense bamboo forest, allowing the swarm to find the ideal path through the natural landscape. The team also successfully showcased how the drones could follow an objective while avoiding traffic and obstacles.
The feat was described as impressive by Enrica Soria, a roboticist affiliated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Soria believes it won’t be long before we see drone swarms performing tasks in real-world scenarios. However, he stressed the need for more experimentation, especially in ultra-dynamic environments such as densely populated cities.