Swarms of 100% autonomous drones have never been closer

Swarms of 100% autonomous drones have never been closer

Chinese researchers have presented a swarm of drones capable of real feats in terms of coordination and obstacle avoidance.

Drones are advancing at an impressive speed; these small machines are now capable of achieving real feats compared to those found just a few years ago. But there are still some limitations that prevent them from moving up a gear. We can for example cite autonomous navigation in swarms or obstacle avoidance… but it is probably only a matter of time.

In any case, this is the ambition of a team of Chinese researchers from the University of Zheijang, in China. During a test that served as a proof of concept, they launched a swarm of ten drones into a bamboo forest; the machines then managed to progress in complete autonomy, in a synchronized way, and while constantly adjusting the trajectory of each unit to avoid obstacles.

This swarm was also able to avoid collisions between drones in the middle of very dense air traffic. The researchers also proved that it was able to follow a human without any problem in these very complicated conditions.

Obstacle avoidance, the sinews of war

Performances that might seem anecdotal, but which actually overflow with concrete implications. Because here we are not just talking about a set of interconnected machines that simply have to adjust their position relative to each other, as for example in drone-based light shows.

Here, the whole issue is to maintain a form of coherence in the movement of each unit to preserve the integrity of the swarm, but leaving a some degree of control to each individual gear. And it’s an extremely subtle dynamic that continues to resist researchers.

Indeed, many swarms of this type have already been tested. But everyone had to make concessions at one level or another; it could for example be a question of tests in an open environment, in the slightest obstacle. Others have tried to integrate this constraint, but they have done so by pre-programming the location of the traps upstream.

And it is precisely this that makes the Chinese researchers’ demonstration so impressive; they even claim a world premiere at this level. This is information that is difficult to verify, but specialists in the discipline seem to agree. “This is the first time a swarm of drones has been tested flying in an unstructured outdoor environment in the wild.”, confirms Enrica Soria, a Swiss robotics engineer not affiliated with the study interviewed by AFP.

A squadron of autonomous drones could be a fantastic ally in the context of relief operations. © NOAA

Autonomy that will multiply the practical interest of drones

And this is a particularly exciting development for many reasons. Just look at the central role that these drones have inherited in a few years in fields as varied as emergency services, agriculture, industry, surveillance, fundamental research…

And although they are already an integral part of the arsenal of many professionals, they are still only at their infancy. Because all this great progress could still experience a dazzling acceleration if these drones were able to perform these tasks in complete autonomy in a constantly changing environment.

And the least we can say is that the constraints associated with these environments are considerable, because there is no not possible to pre-program all possible scenarios. This means that the swarm must juggle in real time with a multitude of parameters to optimize trajectory calculations; the goal is to allow the swarm to move around safely, but without wasting its precious electrical charge by taking overly cautious paths.

© Zhou et. para.

Fabulous promises in lots of areas

At this level, the progress made by Chinese researchers in terms of obstacle avoidance is very encouraging. Eventually, it is work of this type that will make it possible to produce drones capable of improvise a response to a complex situation in complete autonomywithout relying on human assistance or external infrastructure such as the GPS network.

And if this capability can be scaled up to a full squadron, able to operate in synchrony, the number of possibilities is still growing at an exponential rate.

For example, such a swarm could theoretically move very efficiently in an urban environment without impeding the movement of pedestrians and other vehicles. He could also cover a large area hit by a natural disaster much faster than a single drone piloted by a human operator; this would make it possible to plan relief operations with formidable precision and speed, and therefore save more lives.

They could also participate in large-scale scientific work by constantly collecting data, including in very remote and difficult to access areas. For example, they could become allies of choice for monitoring ecological niches within the framework of studies on biodiversity or global warming.

One can even imagine much more “practical” applications; these swarms could for example be integrated into a logistics network. They could then collectively carry potentially very heavy loads.

Mass surveillance
Swarms of this type could also be used for surveillance purposes, or even militarized. © Lianhao Qu – Unsplash

“The Age of the Drone” awaits us around the bend

Of course, this technology also has the potential to implement more disturbing systems. We can already say without the slightest risk that certain actors would be delighted to integrate such a swarm into a system of large-scale monitoring.

Some institutions are even already openly working on militarize such swarms by equipping them with strategic equipment, even potentially lethal weapons. For example, we can cite the Pentagon, which has regularly expressed its interest in this technology, which will probably transform the military sector one day.

It is also not excluded that institutions of this type, which have considerable resources, have already succeeded in producing militarized swarms of this type. On the other hand, as always in the military sector, it is a matter of secret-defence research and it is therefore impossible to know how this work is progressing.

But anyway, it’s only a matter of time before such swarms are usable in real conditions. It will therefore be very interesting to follow the evolution of these synchronized squadrons over the years to come, because this technology could have a considerable impact on our daily lives in the relatively near future.

The research paper is available here.

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