University of Houston Team Working to Develop Intelligent Drone Swarms
by DRONELIFE Staff Writer Ian M. Crosby
The global increase in the use of low-cost drones has seen them leveraged in a wide range of applications, sometimes deployed in entire swarms. However, despite advancements within drone technology, swarm mechanics have remained largely the same. Though it is possible to fly large numbers of drones in synch, these swarms are preprogrammed by teams of animators and are refined with hours of computer simulations.
Aaron Becker, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working to refine algorithms enabling the coordinated control of drone swarms based on the behavior of flocks of birds and schools of fish. “These movements are not pre-programmed but are based on local decisions by individual birds or fish,” said Becker, whose work is supported by the commitment of a $1.7 million grant from Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern University, LLC.
Becker leads a team including David Jackson, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Julien Leclerc, assistant research professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Daniel Onofrei, associate professor of mathematics.
“The majority of current research on swarms follows the same pattern and either relies on offline computation or uses simple rule-based logic such as ‘don’t bump into your neighbor while following the leader.’ Computers are great at fast computation and implementing tactics, but humans can excel at strategic decision making. We want to combine these,” said Becker. “We want our swarms to behave optimally yet respond fluidly to changes in the environment. We aim to use computation on drones to locally make smart decisions, relay that information to the operator’s computer to make clear visualizations, and let the human operator make high-level decisions.”
The technology will be studied during two initial application scenarios. In the first, the drones will conduct the aerial sensing of a forest fire, in which the swarm must both track the fire and relay communications to firefighters. In the second scenario, the aerial security coverage of a commercial facility and campus, the drones will escort vehicles entering and exiting the campus, while each drone possesses limited battery life and must recharge when batteries are depleted.
Becker possesses years of experience in the study and development of robots, having previously worked on controlling massive swarms of robots and exploring systems where only a handful of instructions were required to guide large groups of robots to complete tasks.
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