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Hungarian eggheads unleash not-at-all-scary DRONE SWARM

Q: What's more terrifying than it sounds? A: Flock of autonomous aerial robots

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Vid Researchers have taught flying drones to behave like birds, clearing the way for further development of technologies to marshal swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In a paper titled Outdoor flocking and formation flight with autonomous aerial robots boffins from Budapet's Eötvös University Department of Biological Physics describe how they have been able to teach quadcopters to flock – an approach that lets them work like swarms of birds, traveling in a self-adjusting, self-stabilizing fleet that doesn't need to communicate back to a central controller.

The dry language of the paper almost hides the astonishing implications of this advance.

"We achieved self-propelled flocking in a bounded area with self-organized object avoidance capabilities and performed collective target tracking with stable formation flights," the researchers wrote.

Translation: our flying robots can move in a swarm without colliding and are able to either chase or hover above a target.

Youtube video of the drones in action

Potential applications of the technology are varied, but we imagine a variety of military research labs are commissioning feasibility studies of equipping some of these quadcopters with armaments and others with cameras, then having them work together to spot, track, and ultimately target an object.

"Our main goal was to show that the various peaceful applications of drones are by now feasible," the researchers stated before envisaging applications like ad-hoc swarm-based mobile networks, self-organizing environment monitoring, stock delivery, and rescue operation assistance.

This advance represents an important step [shouldn't that be flight? flap? – Ed] forward in drone swarm technology, which has a large number of applications in areas varying from data collection to astonishingly effective hunter-killer scenarios.

At the moment, drones are typically flown on a solo basis either manually or along predefined routes. What the researchers work demonstrates is a way to quickly form ad-hoc networks of drones that can fly together in a self-stabilizing formation, while following a target.

For the experiment they used off-the-shelf commercial quadcopters from MikroKopter Co, along with a custom autopilot board loaded with flocking algorithms.

This addition board contained a 3D gyroscope, a 3D accelerometer, a 3D magnetometer, a pressure sensor, a GPS receiver, a 2.4GHz XBee unit – "flock members process incoming XBee packets only from other robots, which are inside their communication range (typically around 50–100m). That is similar to the way birds fly in a flock," they wrote – and a GumStix Overo Water mini-computer loaded with Linux.

"The true advantage of a flocking flight over a single flying robot stands in its increased ‘awareness’, robustness and redundancy," they explained. "The flock, as a meta-unit, can detect the environment more efficiently and can operate much longer than its members individually."

The research was supported by the EU ERC COLLMOT project. ®

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