A swarm of 10 bright blue drones blast through a bamboo forest in China, then veer their way among twigs, crowded shrubs and uneven ground as they navigate the best flight path through the jungle.
The experiment, led by scientists at Zhejiang University, evokes scenes from science fiction — and in fact the authors cite films like star WarsAnd Prometheus, And Blade Runner 2049 in the opening Published a paper Wednesday in the magazine robotics science.
“Here, we take a step forward (for) such a future,” wrote the team led by Shen Zhou.
In theory, there are myriad real-world applications, including aerial mapping for conservation and disaster relief work. But the technology needed to mature so that flying robots could adapt to new environments without bumping into each other or objects, jeopardizing public safety.
Drone swarms have been tested in the past, but either in open, unobstructed environments, or with the location of those programmed obstacles, Enrica Soria, a robotics scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne who was not involved in the research, told AFP.
“This is the first time that a swarm of drones has successfully flown outside in an unregulated environment, in the wild,” she said, adding that the experience was “impressive.”
The palm-sized robots are built for this purpose, with depth cameras, altitude sensors, and an onboard computer. The biggest advance has been an intelligent algorithm that includes collision avoidance, flight efficiency and in-swarm coordination.
Since these drones do not rely on any external infrastructure, such as GPS, swarms can be used during natural disasters.
For example, they can be sent to earthquake-stricken areas to survey damage and determine where to send assistance, or to buildings where it is unsafe to send people.
It is certainly possible to use single drones in such scenarios, but the swarm approach would be more effective, especially given limited flight times.
Another possible use is to have the swarm collectively lift and deliver heavy objects.
There is also a dark side: armies can arm squadrons, just as they can today with individual drones. The Pentagon has repeatedly expressed interest and is conducting its own tests.
“Military research is not shared with the rest of the world publicly, so it’s hard to imagine what stage they are in in their development,” Syria said.
But the common advances in scientific journals can certainly be used for military purposes.
The Chinese team tested their drones in different scenarios – storming through a bamboo forest, dodging other drones in a high-traffic experience, and making robots follow a person’s footsteps.
“Our work was inspired by birds that fly smoothly in a free flock through very dense forests,” Chu wrote in a blog.
The challenge, he said, is balancing competing demands: the need for machines that are small and lightweight, but with high computing power, and to plan safe routes without significantly lengthening flight time.
For Syria, it only took a few years before we saw such drones deployed in real life. First, though, they will need to test in ultra-dynamic environments such as cities, where they will constantly encounter people and vehicles.
Regulations will also need to catch up, which takes extra time.
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