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From Robotic Swarms to Search and Rescue UAVs

From Robotic Swarms to Search and Rescue UAVs

Ants are capable of traveling in a very organized and efficient way to a source of food despite having to coordinate the movement of thousands. They communicate in ways that we still don’t fully understand. So what do ants have to do with the latest drone technology? Well imagine this a group of drones working

Ants are capable of traveling in a very organized and efficient way to a source of food despite having to coordinate the movement of thousands. They communicate in ways that we still don’t fully understand. So what do ants have to do with the latest drone technology? Well imagine this a group of drones working together like a colony of ants to get a job done.

Let’s say you are out one day flying your autonomous quadcopter and you then decide to put it in loiter mode for easy flying. You input commands for it to fly to certain waypoints and water some plants you have in your backyard. Sounds easy enough right?

Sure, but let’s up the ante a bit. Now you want a second quadcopter to simultaneously perform the same task in order to finish the job twice as fast. How would you as the pilot coordinate two separate drones that are performing the same task without crashing into one another? How would you prevent them from watering the same plant twice?

These are the types of problems a robotic swarms research group from University of Washington in Seattle is determined to solve. They’re working to create robotic swarm algorithms that could be used for controlling multiple drones simultaneously. Inspired by how critters – such as ants or bees – are able to perform common tasks with a group mentality, swarm robotics is a study that deals with the coordination of multiple robotics and how they interact with one another when trying to get something done together.

Why We Need Robotic Swarms: Search and Rescue Missions and More

Let’s start by clarifying that swarm robotics algorithms will most likely be applied primarily to multicopters and not to fixed wing UAVs. This is because the dynamics are much simpler for a multicopter than they are for fixed wing aircraft. Multicopters greatly simplify the algorithms for robotic swarms as you don’t need to take into account more complicated fixed wing aircraft dynamics equations.

Now that that technical caveat is out of the way, let’s explore some ideas for where this technology may be used in the near future.

  • Search and Rescue Missions: Search and rescue UAVs could fly in efficient formations to cover large areas when searching for missing people. More drones equates to much quicker task completion in general.
  • Networks of Ambulance Drones: There have already been researchers experimenting with ambulance drones. Networks of these UAVs may be needed with built-in swarm algorithms to control them all. Just as flocks of birds are able to communicate to avoid crashing into each other, we need our drones to do the same.
  • Forestry: Networks of drone tree planters may be put into effect to help with reforestation. After all, in this case, more drones may make for healthier ecosystems, faster.

These are currently drone dreams and not yet reality. As it stands, it is not cost effective for the average user to purchase swarms of drones to do an agricultural task for example. This may change however as drones only become cheaper.

People are Already Finding Cool Jobs in this Drone Technology Field

If you’re already a drone pilot and/or working in robotics, perhaps you’ve thought that your interests could be put to good use by combining them. Here are the different ways you may be able to get into robotic swarm applications for drones.

  • Software Engineer: Experienced mission coordinators will work with complex software that uses consensus algorithms to control swarms of robots. However, the average consumer will not want to learn how to use complex software just to be able to water their plants with a swarm of drones. For them, software engineers will need to program user-friendly interfaces that any average person could use.
  • Mechanical/Aerospace Engineers: Even though the dynamics of multicopters are simplified, we still need work in the stability and control for different UAVs. More demanding consensus algorithms will need more precise stability and control of the swarms. What’s more, different UAVs will require different equations to work within swarm dynamics. In other words, the level of difficulty in gaining stability and control of any given of a swarm of robots will have a direct impact on how complicated the consensus algorithms will be.
  • Swarm Robotics Software Developers (Or Mission Coordinators): Even though the software will be more user friendly, commercial software will require a higher skill level and more training than the average drone software. This will open many new job openings for skilled pilots.

Certainly more exciting job opportunities will develop in this arena as the industry expands. Swarm robotics is an exciting multidisciplinary field with many potential future applications. It may just be that some time in the future, you’ll have your very own lawn mowed by a bunch of drones with just a press of a button on your smartphone.

If you’re already working in robotic swarms for UAVs, we want your story! Contact us to be interviewed for our news magazine.

 

Image via Flickr: NK | Photography

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