A swarm of tiny drones that can explore unknown environments completely by themselves was presented by researchers on October 23, 2019. The work presented in Science Robotics formed a significant step in the field of swarm robotics. The researchers are from TU Delft and the Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and the University of Liverpool. A group of six drones explored an office environment with no human control and captured two dummies on camera.

The announcement claimed the research was a “significant step in the field of swarm robotics” and could lead to search-and-rescue swarms that are much quicker than single, larger machines.

“In the future, rescue workers will be able to release a swarm of tiny drones to explore a disaster site such as a building that is about to collapse,” the announcement said. “The swarm of drones will enter the building, explore it and come back to the base station with relevant information. The rescue workers can then focus their efforts on the most relevant areas – for instance, where there are still people inside.”

Automation has its own challenges

The challenge arose when the tiny 33g drones were equipped with cameras and sent into an indoor office environment to find the two dummies representing victims in a disaster scenario. The exploration was challenging as the drones autonomously navigated while having extremely limited sensing and computational capabilities.

“The biggest challenge in achieving swarm exploration lies at the level of the individual intelligence of the drones,” says Kimberly McGuire, the Ph.D. student who has performed the project. “In the beginning of the project, we focused on achieving basic flight capabilities such as controlling the velocity and avoiding obstacles.”

Swarming was also useful for redundancy, the researchers said. One drone found a victim but could not bring back images because of camera failure. Luckily, another drone captured the victim on camera as well.

A swarm of drones

Innovative Inspiration

The researchers were inspired to make those tasks easier that cannot be done by larger drones. The thought came from insects as they developed low weight devices. The main advantage of this was that they did not require extra hardware on the drone and it required very few computations. Each drone carried a wireless communication chip and reacted to the signal strength between them for demonstration.

“The main idea underlying the new navigation method is to reduce our navigation expectations to the extreme – we only require the robots to be able to navigate back to the base station,” said principal investigator Guido de Croon.

This research marks an important phase in drone technology and specifically drone swarms. Command and execution of a swarm of drones is an extremely difficult task. Getting them to function autonomously is another job altogether. Autonomous drone swarms could reduce the response time in disasters greatly, thereby, increasing survival rates. Russia has also been conceptualizing its Kamikaze-styled drone swarms, which if created could be unstoppable.