(ORDO NEWS) — A swarm of 10 bright blue drones take off in a bamboo forest in China and then weave their way through cluttered branches, bushes and uneven ground, autonomously choosing the best flight path through the forest.
An experiment led by scientists at Zhejiang University conjures up scenes from science fiction – and the authors do indeed cite films like Star Wars, Prometheus and Blade Runner 2049 at the start of their article published Wednesday in the journal Science robotics.
“Here we take a step forward (towards) such a future,” writes the team led by Xin Zhou.
In theory, there are a huge number of real-world applications, including aerial mapping for nature conservation and disaster relief. However, the technology needs to be perfected so that flying robots can adapt to new conditions without crashing into each other or into objects, creating a threat to public safety.
Swarms of drones have already been tested in the past, but either in open environments without obstacles or with programmed placement of those obstacles, Enrique Soria, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who was not involved in the study, told AFP.
“This is the first time a swarm of drones have successfully flown outdoors in an unstructured environment, in the wild,” she said, adding that the experiment was “impressive.”
The palm-sized robots were purpose-built, equipped with depth cameras, height sensors and an on-board computer. The biggest achievement was the smart algorithm, which includes collision avoidance, flight efficiency and intra-swarm coordination.
Since these drones do not depend on external infrastructure such as GPS, the swarm can be used during natural disasters.
For example, they can be sent to earthquake-affected areas to inspect damage and determine where to send aid, or to buildings where it is unsafe to send people.
Of course, single drones can be used in such scenarios, but a swarm will be much more effective, especially given the limited flight time.
Another possible application is the collective lifting and delivery of heavy objects.
There is also a darker side: the swarm can become a weapon for the military, as remotely controlled single 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 it’s in,” says Soria.
But the achievements reported in scientific journals can certainly be used for military purposes.”
The Chinese team tested their drones in a variety of scenarios – wading through a bamboo forest, avoiding other drones in a high-traffic experiment, and having the robots follow a human.
“Our work was inspired by birds that fly unhindered in a free swarm even through a very dense forest,” Zhou wrote on his blog.
The challenge, he said, was balancing competing demands: the need to build small, lightweight machines with high processing power, and plotting safe trajectories without significantly increasing flight time.
Soria believes it will only be a few years before we see such drones in real life. However, they will first need to be tested in ultra-dynamic environments such as cities, where they will constantly collide with people and vehicles.
In addition, it will be necessary to catch up with regulations, which will take additional time.
Contact us: [email protected]