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It looks like something out of a science fiction movie – a cloud of small drones rises and intertwines through a dense forest. They can stay in formation, share data and track a target, even if part of the swarm can’t see it. However, everything is real. Researchers at Zhejiang University in China developed the robots and detailed the process in the diary Scientific work. The team says groups of autonomous drones like this could be ideal for mapping and disaster relief, but there are also clear uses for military and surveillance operations.

Drone planes are nothing new and drone swarms are even able to coordinate operations, perhaps putting a neat light show in the sky. However, this is a pre-programmed maneuver – no one can control a swarm of a dozen robots in real time. That is why the swarm designed at Zhejiang University is completely autonomous. Moreover, it does not rely on infrastructure such as GPS. All the data the swarm needs to work comes from the sensors of the robots themselves. The team says this is the first example of a swarm flying autonomously in an unstructured environment.

Each drone in the cluster has a depth mapping camera, an altitude sensor and a small Nvidia Xavier NX computer. The algorithm integrates data from multiple drones, allowing them to maneuver through crowded unknown environments. Drones that are compact enough to fit in your hand can pass through holes up to 30 centimeters in size. This is exactly the technology that would help if, for example, you are looking for survivors of a natural disaster.

The swarm has another interesting and somewhat disturbing ability. The designers showed that the algorithm can follow a human goal through the environment with incredible accuracy. If one robot loses sight of the target because it is walking behind a tree, another will be able to maintain eye contact. This means that the first robot still knows where the target is and can take it again on the other side of the obstacle. With more development, this technology may make it virtually impossible to avoid the swarm. What will happen then depends on the operator of the said swarm of drones.

Researchers have shown that the swarm can cope with minor disturbances, such as lifting or pushing a single drone, as well as adding new obstacles in flight. While drones have shown an incredible ability to adapt to forest environments, a busy urban environment can be more challenging. Compared to the forest, cities are much more active and it is not clear how well the algorithm will cope with all these disturbances. The team hopes to test this in the future.

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