Archive for March 8th, 2012


Secret Agent Drones

 Post from Jeffrey Winters

In April 2011, Brandon Basso of the University of California and his colleagues wrote “Airborne, Autonomous & Collaborative,” a cover article about the possibilities of collaborative swarms of UAVs. “With UAVs becoming both cheap and easy to build,” they wrote, “the field’s leading edge is now systems—squadrons of two or five or ten aircraft, collaborating to achieve a common goal. The ambition is to use teams of flying robots to develop vision-based maps of large areas, track moving objects, fuse information from multiple aircraft and multiple sensors, and perform high-level task planning.”

And that is still the long-term goal, I’m sure. But the ability to link up small quadrotors—pint-sized helicopters that have the ability to hover in mid-air as well as fly in any direction—has led researchers and hobbyists alike to use these minidrones for seemingly more frivolous activities. The video found by clicking here may seem like a stunt, but as the University of Pennsylvania’s Evan Lerner writes, “Lab members… assign each unit a series of waypoints in three-dimensional space that must be reached at an exact time…. Figuring out how to get from waypoint to waypoint most efficiently and without disturbing their neighbors is up to the robots.”

Building up expertise in swarm navigation will lead to all sorts of advances. One can imagine a swarm of mini-UAVs going house to house looking for enemy soldiers—or searching the countryside for missing children. But before we get to such serious work, these flying robots must first learn how to play.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

March 2012

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