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Drones Are Now Flying in Flocks

Hungarian researchers made the first drones that can fly as an autonomous coordinated team.

Drone haters have a new reason to fear the flying robots: they’ve learned to work together.

In a paper submitted for an IEEE conference later this year, a Hungarian team claim to have created the first drones that can fly in an autonomous flock. Nature’s Ed Yong reported that the work saw ten quadcopter drones fly in formation over a Budapest field, without any central control.

That’s to say that the drones figured out their own flight paths by communicating with each other, just like natural group travellers like flocks of birds or schools of fish. Principal investigator Tamás Vicsek explained in a video that building the robots was in fact a step towards better understanding flock behaviour in nature.

Video: COLLMOT/Vimeo

They started with standard commercial quadcopters and added their own hardware “brain.” “With the proper flocking algorithms fed to this new brain, the copters are able to fly autonomously, which could totally eliminate the need for manual control, and a group of quadrocopters could perform flights and tasks on their own,” said robotics leader Gábor Vásaárhelyi.

The video shows some pretty cool flight patterns; when the drones are directed to form a circle, for instance, they all find their own place and even decide which way to fly around depending on the positions they held before the formation. When they need to get through a gap, they all queue up mid-hover and go through one by one.

They’re given a direction or a formation to follow, but it’s up to them to figure out how to work as a group and avoid crashing in a collision of wires and rotors. They navigate using GPS, and communicate with each other over radio, which sounds pretty much like what humans do when trying to coordinate a trip.

The drones before take-off. Image: Hungarian Academy of Sciences

While other researchers have looked into drone flocks, this innovation is a first insofar as the drones were tested in an open outdoor area and weren’t hooked up to a central computer.

In their paper, the researchers lay out the advantages of a multi-drone flock: It’s able to operate longer than an individual robot and cover more ground, which could be useful for applications such as monitoring the environment. Other jobs they suggest for the robo-swarms include forming ad-hoc mobile networks, helping with airport traffic control, assisting in rescue missions, and pest control (I’d love to see that last one).

There is perhaps some cause for worry, though, as the authors recognise another potential sector for development: military applications. “However, by demonstrating the stable flight of a truly autonomous, decentralised robotic flock, our main goal was to show that the various peaceful applications of drones are by now feasible,” they finished.