Watch a swarm of drones autonomously follow a human through a dense forest


Scientists from China’s Zhejiang University have unveiled a swarm of drones capable of navigating through a dense bamboo forest without human guidance.

The group of 10 palm-sized drones communicate with each other to stay in formation, sharing data collected by onboard depth-sensing cameras to map their surroundings. This method means that if the path in front of a drone is blocked, it can use the information collected by its neighbors to plot a new route. The researchers note that this technique can also be used by the swarm to track a human walking through the same environment. If one drone loses sight of the target, others are able to follow the trail.

In the future, write scientists in an article published in the journal Scientific Robotics, swarms of drones like this could be used for disaster relief and ecological studies.

“During natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, a swarm of drones can search, guide and deliver emergency supplies to those trapped,” they write. “For example, during forest fires, agile multicopters can quickly gather information from a close view of the front line without risk of human injury.”

However, experts say the work also has clear military potential. A number of countries – primarily the US, China, Russia, Israel and the UK – are currently developing swarms of drones that could be used in wartime. The military tends to cite surveillance and reconnaissance as the most common applications of this job, but the same technology could undoubtedly be used to track and attack both combatants and civilians.

An illustration from the article showing how multiple drones can be used to track a target even if one drone’s view is blocked.
Image: Scientific Robotics / Xin Zhou et al

Elke Schwarz, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London whose specialties include the use of drones in combat, says the research has clear military potential.

“The ability to navigate cluttered environments, for example, is desirable for a range of military purposes, including urban warfare,” Schwarz said. The edge. “Like the ability to ‘track a human’ – here I can see how that converges with projects that seek to develop deadly drone capabilities that minimize risk to soldiers on the ground in urban environments.”

The recent war between Russia and Ukraine has shown how quickly drone technology can be adapted to the battlefield and what devastating effect it can have. Both sides in the conflict use inexpensive consumer drones for reconnaissance and, sometimes, attack. One method is to use drones to drop grenades on opposing forces. A recent video showed Ukrainian troops using what appears to be a DJI Phantom 3 drone (price: $500) to drop a grenade through the sunroof of a car allegedly being driven by Russian soldiers.

What makes drone swarms potentially more dangerous than single machines is not just their numbers, but their range. No human can simultaneously control a swarm of 10 drones, but if this task can be left to algorithms, military planners are more likely to adopt the use of this type of autonomous system in wartime.

Watch a swarm of drones autonomously follow a human through a dense forest

Swarm drones are able to navigate through gaps as small as 30 centimeters.
Image: Scientific Robotics / Xin Zhou et al

Currently, drone swarms are limited in their application. The most common real-world use case is to create elaborate light shows. But in these scenarios, the drones follow predefined paths in open spaces, using tracking technology like GPS to locate themselves.

Research from Zhejiang University advances on this by only using on-board sensors and algorithms to control the flight of drones without prior mapping of their environment. “This is the first time that a drone swarm has successfully flown outdoors in an unstructured environment, in the wild,” said Enrica Soria, drone swarm researcher at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne. . AFP. Soria added that the work was “impressive”.

In their paper, the scientists note that drone swarm approaches tend to follow one of two programming paradigms: either “bird” or “insect.” In an “insect” swarm, the focus is on quick, responsive movements that require less planning, while a “bird” swarm tries to steer drones along long, flowing paths (the latter being the approach of the researchers). Both methods have their drawbacks, because thinking like a bug requires less computational power, but planning like a bird is more energy efficient. But, as the computational capability of hardware improves, programming bird behavior has become more feasible.

Schwarz notes that while drone swarm research often focuses on these technological achievements, it can obscure the trickier questions of How? ‘Or’ What such work should be deployed. She cites the observations of 20th-century American mathematician Norbert Wiener, whose work laid the groundwork for the development of AI.

Schwarz says:[Weiner] said – in the 1960s – that there is a disastrous focus and obsession with “know-how”, which tends to overshadow the moral question we should ask ourselves: what is it for? »


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