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Swarm of tiny drones finds 'disaster victims' with minimal computing power

Professional Engineering

The drones explore the office environment to find disaster 'victims' (Credit: TU Delft/ MAVLab)
The drones explore the office environment to find disaster 'victims' (Credit: TU Delft/ MAVLab)

A swarm of tiny drones autonomously found two ‘disaster victims’ despite each machine having extremely limited sensing and computing, showing how machines could save human lives by combining to be more than the sum of their parts.

Developed by researchers at TU Delft and Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and the University of Liverpool, the group of six drones explored an office environment with no human control and captured two dummies on camera.

The announcement claimed the research was a “significant step in the field of swarm robotics” and could lead to search-and-rescue swarms that are much quicker than single, larger machines.

“In the future, rescue workers will be able to release a swarm of tiny drones to explore a disaster site such as a building that is about to collapse,” the announcement said. “The swarm of drones will enter the building, explore it and come back to the base station with relevant information. The rescue workers can then focus their efforts on the most relevant areas – for instance, where there are still people inside.”

In the demonstration, the tiny 33g drones were equipped with cameras and sent into an indoor office environment to find the two dummies representing victims in a disaster scenario. The six drones explored about 80% of the open rooms in six minutes, much quicker than would be possible with one drone.

Swarming was also useful for redundancy, the researchers said. One drone found a victim but could not bring back images because of a camera failure. Luckily, another drone captured the victim on camera as well.

Insect inspiration

The researchers were inspired by insects as they developed the low weight devices. Tiny robots are unable to carry heavy equipment, leading to some innovative approaches to navigating without detailed maps.

After achieving basic flight capabilities such as velocity control and obstacle avoidance, the team designed a method for the drones to detect and avoid each other. Each one carried a wireless communication chip and reacted to the signal strength between them. The main advantage of this method was that it did not require extra hardware on the drone and it required very few computations.

“The main idea underlying the new navigation method is to reduce our navigation expectations to the extreme – we only require the robots to be able to navigate back to the base station,” said principal investigator Guido de Croon. Each robot spread out by following a different preferred direction. After exploring, they returned to a wireless beacon at the base station.  

The approach resulted in less efficient paths but it can be implemented on tiny robots, the researchers said.

The work was published in Science Robotics.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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