Increased drone uses poses a challenge in terms of regulating this heavy drone traffic in the skies above, and researchers from the VU University Amsterdam may have developed a way to ensure drones in crowded airspace don’t collide with each other – or with planes.
With the FAA announcing that drone registration outnumbered that of airplanes as far back as 2016, drone delivery has been held back by the rift between simulation and what works in real life, Dr. Agoston E. Eiben, a professor of computer science at VU University Amsterdam and co-author of the new study published in the Science Robotics journal, explains.
“We have a massive e-commerce industry. If drone delivery gets big then urban environments will be a major hurdle for various drones sharing the same airspace,” Eiben told Inverse. “There needs to be underlying, decentralized software to make sure they don’t collide, its core to this advancement.”
Collective bird movement holds the answer, says Dr. Gábor Vásárhelyi, author of the study. Eiben describes their development of drone technology that mimics how birds flock together as “natural computing.”
The researchers observed pigeons with GPS devices for 6 years to reproduce these aerial formations of the birds with autonomous drones.
For drones, mastering synchronized flight may be a crucial first step to mastering real-world delivery routes.
Mimicking the flight of a flock of birds flight simulation of 30 autonomous drones was attempted in a confined area at 6 m/s (13.4 mph) using the method developed by Vásárhelyi and his colleagues, who built custom drones and implemented their bird-inspired models.
This was then refined by Eiben’s software expertise and the team were successful in getting 30 quadcopters to self-organize themselves using GPS modules.
Just like birds, they not only determined the distance to the closest drone but also calculated the speed and acceleration of their fellow robots.
“Now, every drone has a single pilot, soon these drones will have such a density in the air that we need to make them able to communicate with each other.” Vásárhelyi elaborated.
This in-air communication is crucial, because of the intense interest in drone delivery as a business, with multi-national companies such as Amazon and Walmart, and start-ups alike, working to make these services a reality.
Other drone technology to simulate the flight of birds has already seen the light of day in China, albeit for more sinister purposes.
Chinese military and government agencies are apparently using undercover drones to spy on segments of the population, especially in an area of Western China that borders Russia, Mongolia, and Pakistan, among other countries.
The drones program called “Dove,” has robotic avians with flapping wings attached to a central body unit with a GPS module, speed sensor, downward-facing camera, and an antenna that allows its handlers to control its movements.
According to a report from the South China Morning Post, the program underwent a number of refinements before being deployed, with thousands of test flights.