Although it may sound like a summer blockbuster (no doubt starring Jason Statham) the concept of “The Drone Swarm” is not as scary as it sounds and may even improve quality of life. Swarming, insect-sized UAVs can be deployed (sometimes autonomously) for search-and-rescue, agriculture and may even one day replace human-directed military actions.
The University of Pennsylvania‘s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab has developed a swarm of 20 nano-sized quadcoptors developed by KMel Robotics. Writing in Popular Science, Clay Dillow notes that the GRASP drones can “work together to manipulate objects and even build structures together.”
“The idea of looping more than a dozen of these things together and putting them to work on complex projects makes this kind of precision performance feel very much like the future,” Dillow added.
And that future – at least in India — could include tiny swarms of super soldiers gathering intelligence and reconnaissance for human troops. India’s Aeronautical Development Establishment has already provided small, non-swarming drones like the tactical UAV Nishant. The company is underwriting student projects that may launch the next step in swarm tech.
“The technical challenge will be to develop technologies required for co-operative flying among UAVs and design of swarm missions. (During swarm missions, a group of UAVs communicate to each other and undertake varied tasks),” ADE Director P Srikumar told New India Express, adding that such swarm technology could, if not end human-directed war, at least make it less costly in lives by replacing human “scouts” with a drone swarm.
“Missions related to handling ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) are key factors and unmanned platforms play a major role in countering these skirmishes,” he said.
The idea of autonomous, insect-size drones communicating and working together towards a programmable goal is not new. In 2007, Washington protestors reported “snooper” drones that looked like dragonflies hovering over (and presumably filming) demonstrations.
Although no agency admitted to deploying them, the Washington Posts discovered “the CIA secretly developed a simple dragonfly snooper as long ago as the 1970s. And given recent advances, even skeptics say there is always a chance that some agency has quietly managed to make something operational.”
In 2009, Boeing filed for a patent for drone swarms that “could someday hover, spin, and attack in response to a simple gesture or graceful pirouette from a human operator.”
“A nod of the human operator’s head could select one robot out of the flying unmanned swarm. A circular hand motion along a certain plane could order another robot to begin moving from a stationary position. An operator might even select a certain group of drones with a pointing motion that defines a ‘three-dimensional conical area.’”
And while Boeing’s swarms would be human controlled, Hungarian researchers have developed 10 autonomous swarming quadcopters that “self-organize as they move through the air.”
The drones can negotiate tricky paths, such as when their route becomes tightly confined. When that happens, some of them hover in place to wait their turn. And it’s all done without a central computer or controlling device, the researchers say. Instead, they use flocking algorithms.”
If these swarms sound like something found in nature, it’s because they are designed that way. The Hungarian researchers based the drones on flocks of pigeons, “which fly in tight bunches while making adjustments and decisions.”
As reported in DRONELIFE, other developers base new drone designs on biological models such as Robo-fly – a tiny UAV weighing in at an amazing .0037 ounces. The drone looks like a cross between a stick insect and a mayfly.
The tiny drone mimics the anatomy of bees and other flying insects in that it’s mounted with three sensors similar to an insect’s ocelli – a light-sensitive structure similar to eyes that keep insects – and Robo-fly — stabilized during flight.
And while Robo-fly cannot yet form a swarm, such breakthroughs will continue to advance drone technology and make tasks such as autonomous search and rescue and even drone-operated pollination a reality.
Jason is a longstanding contributor to DroneLife with an avid interest in all things tech. He focuses on anti-drone technologies and the public safety sector; police, fire, and search and rescue.
Beginning his career as a journalist in 1996, Jason has since written and edited thousands of engaging news articles, blog posts, press releases and online content.
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