Researchers at China's Zhejiang University have cracked the code for getting a drone swarm to fly through the uncontrolled environment of a bamboo forest completely autonomously. The ten autonomous drones in the study are reportedly the first UAVs to navigate unprogrammed obstacles outdoors. The researchers were inspired by bird swarms flying through dense woods.
Two of the ultimate goals of this new technology may be surprising, as the researchers plan to deploy drone swarms for conservation and disaster-relief work—operations currently managed by human pilots. But the Zhejiang University team believes drone swarms could do these jobs far more efficiently.
The room for improvement lies in the fact that drone flight times are limited, and surveying an area typically requires multiple passes of a single drone. However, a swamp can survey that same area quickly and comprehensively, improving response rates—especially in disaster situations where a single human-operated drone might be too little too late.
Previous tests of drone swarms have occurred in controlled environments, and often with the obstacles already programmed into the flight plan—all of which makes the success of the Zhejiang swarm quite remarkable.
The test swarm consisted of palm-sized robots equipped with altitude sensors, depth cameras, and an onboard computer, but no external guidance from GPS. Collision avoidance, swarm coordination, and flight efficiency were all encoded into the operational algorithm.