If drones are going to take over any of the numerous tasks they’re supposed to do, they’re going to have to get a lot smarter and learn to work together. In a demonstration of both, the Chinese researchers show a swarm of drones collectively navigating through a dense forest that they have never seen before.
We’ve seen drone swarms before, for a long time in fact, but while they’re often well-coordinated, they’re not collectively autonomous. That is, although they fly in an adjustable formation and avoid obstacles, their trajectories are being controlled by a central computer that monitors their positions and issues commands.
As you can imagine, it would be useful to have drones that can coordinate their movements with each other, without any central organizing function. But this is difficult to achieve, since most of the sensors and computational resources required to perceive and react to the environment quickly and effectively are detrimental to the agility required to do so.
However, researchers at Zheijang University in Hangzhou have succeeded with a swarm of 10 strong drones smart enough to fly autonomously through a dense, unknown forest, yet small and light enough that each one can easily fit in the palm of your hand. It’s a big step toward using swarms like this for things like aerial surveying and disaster response.
Based on an ultra-compact off-the-shelf drone design, the team built a trajectory planner for the group that relies entirely on data from the swarm’s onboard sensors, which they process locally and share with each other. Drones can be balanced or steered to pursue various goals, such as keeping a certain distance from obstacles or each other, or minimizing the total flight time between two points, etc.
Drones can also, worryingly, be given a task like “follow this human.” We’ve all seen enough movies to know that this is how it starts… but of course it could also come in handy in rescue or combat circumstances.
Part of their navigation involves mapping the world around them, of course, and the document includes some very cool 3D renderings of the environments the swarm was sent through. Here’s one:
The study is published in the latest issue of the journal Science Robotics, which you can read here, along with several videos showing the drones in action.