It looks like something out of a science fiction movie — a cloud of tiny drones lifts off and weaves through a dense forest. They can remain in formation, sharing data, and tracking a target even if some of the swarm can’t see it. It’s all real, though. Researchers from China’s Zhejiang University developed the robots and detailed the process in the newspaper Science Robotics. The team says groups of autonomous drones like this could be ideal for mapping and disaster relief, but there are also clear use cases for military and surveillance operations.
Drone aircraft are nothing new, and swarms of drones are even able to coordinate operations, perhaps to put on a neat light show in the sky. However, that’s a pre-programmed maneuver — no human can manage a swarm of a dozen robots in real-time. That’s why the swarm designed at Zhejiang University is fully autonomous. What’s more, it doesn’t rely on infrastructure like GPS. All the data the swarm needs to operate comes from the sensors on the robots themselves. The team says this is the first example of a swarm flying autonomously in an unstructured environment.
Each drone in the cluster has a depth-mapping camera, an altitude sensor, and a tiny Nvidia Xavier NX computer. An algorithm integrates data from multiple drones, allowing them to maneuver through cluttered unknown environments. The drones, which are compact enough to fit in your hand, can zip through openings as small as 30 centimeters. This is exactly the kind of technology that would help if you were, for example, searching for survivors in the wake of a natural disaster.
The swarm has another interesting and somewhat alarming capability. The designers showed the algorithm can follow a human target through the environment with incredible accuracy. If one robot loses sight of the target because they walk behind a tree, another will be able to maintain visual contact. That means the first robot still knows where the target is and can pick up again on the other side of the obstruction. With more development, this technology could make it virtually impossible for a person to evade the swarm. What happens then is up to the operator of said drone swarm.
The researchers showed the swarm can cope with minor interference like a person picking up or nudging an individual drone, as well as the addition of new obstacles during flight. While the drones showed an incredible ability to adapt in a forest setting, a bustling urban environment might be more challenging. Compared to a forest, cities are much more active, and it’s unclear how well the algorithm will cope with all that interference. The team hopes to test that in the future.