Swarms of autonomous drones have been successfully tested in the wild

Posted on Thursday May 5, 2022 at 9:06 PM

Dense bamboo forest, China. Suddenly, ten small palm-sized drones soared amidst a noise.

They fly side by side in the same direction, towards a target a few tens of meters away, avoiding branches, dams and other obstacles.

In turn, they pass through the narrow spaces between the bamboo stalks.

All this in a completely independent, coordinated and on-the-ground way that they discover in real time.

The experiment, conducted by scientists from Zhejiang University, evokes a scene of science fiction. Their study, published Wednesday in Science Robotics, began by citing films such as “Star Wars,” “Prometheus” or “Blade Runner 2049.”

The authors of this work wrote: “The ability to navigate and coordinate swarms of drones in these films has inspired many researchers. And here we are taking a step into that future.”

These machines, designed specifically for the experiment, were equipped with a stereo camera, sensors and an on-board computer. Above all, a specific algorithm has been developed.

Swarms of drones have already been tested in the past, but only in open environments or with previously known obstacles, explained to AFP Enrica Soria, of the Ecole Polytechnique d’Autoisement Federal in Lausanne, who has been working on the topic herself for several years.

“This is the first time that a swarm of drones has successfully flown outdoors in an environment that is unregulated, by nature,” she said, describing the experience as “impressive.”

These tiny flying robots, she explains, “can identify their environment on their own, map it, and then plan its path.”

– Relief operations –

Multiple applications.

Since these drones do not rely on any external infrastructure (such as GPS), swarms can be used during natural disasters.

For example, after an earthquake, in order to determine the damage and where to send assistance. Or in a destroyed building where humans cannot venture without danger.

Certainly, it is indeed possible to use individual drones in such scenarios. But with very limited times of autonomy, sending out swarms would save a lot of time.

Another possibility: transporting heavy objects that the machine alone cannot lift.

What about military applications?

The military is already using drones on a large scale, and the Pentagon has repeatedly expressed interest in such squadrons, which it is also testing on its own.

Enrica Soria notes that “military research is not shared with the rest of the world.” “So it’s hard to know what stage of development they are at.”

Could the military use algorithms developed by researchers? He comments humbly: “It’s part of the good and bad sides of having science in open access.”

– flocks of birds –

Chinese scientists conducted several experiments, including flying through a bamboo forest.

In another case, the drones were forced to remain in formation. Instead, the third test forced them to fly in close directions, with a human walking in the middle of the area, to demonstrate that they could avoid each other or avoid the moving person.

“Our work is inspired by birds, which fly smoothly in flocks even through dense forests,” Shen Zhou, lead author of the study, explained in a blog post. Instead, the insect model, with its sudden movements, was avoided.

The challenge, he says, was to reconcile opposing commands: light and small machines, but high-performance computing capabilities, and a safe trajectory, without adding flight time…

When will such swarms be widely used?

“We are not very far away,” Enrica Soria said. Tests are still necessary in ultra-dynamic environments, for example mimicking cities, where vehicles and pedestrians crowd. Regulations must also be adopted, which takes time.

But according to her, “in the next few years, we will be able to have very reliable systems.”

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