A swarm of 10 bright blue drones take off in a bamboo forest in China, then weave their way through crowded branches, bushes and over uneven ground as they autonomously navigate the best flight path through the drink.
The experiment, conducted by scientists from Zhejiang University, evokes scenes from science fiction — and indeed the authors cite films such as ‘Star Wars’, ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ as opening of their article published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotique.
“Here we take a step forward (towards) such a future,” wrote the team, led by Xin Zhou.
In theory, there are myriad real-world applications, including aerial mapping for conservation and disaster relief work. But the technology had to mature so that flying robots could adapt to new environments without crashing into each other or objects, thereby endangering public safety.
Swarms of drones have been tested in the past, but either in open environments with no obstacles or with the location of those obstacles programmed in, said EPFL roboticist Enrica Soria, who was not involved in the research. . AFP.
“This is the first time a drone swarm has successfully flown outdoors in an unstructured, wild environment,” she said, adding that the experience was “impressive.”
The palm-sized robots have been specially designed, with depth cameras, altitude sensors and an on-board computer. The biggest breakthrough was an intelligent algorithm that integrates collision avoidance, flight efficiency and coordination within the swarm.
Since these drones do not depend on any outside infrastructure, such as GPS, the swarms could be used during natural disasters.
For example, they could be sent to earthquake-affected areas to assess the damage and identify where to send help, or to buildings where it is dangerous to send people.
It is certainly possible to use single drones in such scenarios, but a swarm approach would be much more efficient, especially given the limited flight times.
Another possible use is to have the swarm collectively lift and deliver heavy objects.
There is also a darker side: the swarms could be weaponized by the military, just as unique unmanned drones are today. The Pentagon has repeatedly expressed interest and is conducting its own tests.
“Military research is not shared openly with the rest of the world, so it’s hard to imagine what stage they are at in their development,” Soria said.
But the advances shared in scientific journals could certainly be used for military purposes.
– Coming soon? –
The Chinese team tested its drones in different scenarios – swarming through the bamboo forest, dodging other drones in a high-traffic experiment, and having the robots follow a person’s lead.
“Our work was inspired by birds flying smoothly in a free swarm through even very dense woods,” Zhou wrote in a blog post.
The challenge, he said, was to balance the competing demands: the need for small, lightweight machines, but with high computing power, and to plot safe trajectories without significantly extending flight time.
For Soria, it’s only a matter of a few years before we see such drones deployed in real life. However, they will first need to be tested in ultra-dynamic environments like cities, where they will constantly clash with people and vehicles.
Regulations will also have to catch up, which takes additional time.