What can a flock of drones do?

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Could drones operate together to conduct surveillance or track bushfires, without human intervention? ANU researchers are working on the issue, as ELOISE RICHARDS reports.

They’re changing the way disaster relief is issued, how parcels are delivered and how news reports are filmed in dangerous or inaccessible areas.

They’re helping to combat shark attacks, survey mines and monitor air pollution.

In the near future, emergency services could even be using a team of them to search for survivors in burning buildings.

Meet the small, high-flying piece of technology with the potential to impact society in a big way: drones.Don’t mistake drones for a passing fad or gimmick – they have been used for decades, primarily for military purposes, and they’re becoming big business.

The market is expected to grow 32 per cent annually over the next decade to reach $30 billion, according to ABI Research.

These days, drones are increasingly prevalent in a range of industries and for different uses, including environmental monitoring, where they have been developed to hover near a chimney in an industrial plant to monitor emissions and collect data.

Even the world’s biggest celebrities are getting in on the act, with Intel and Lady Gaga’s drone lighting display wowing audiences at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show. Hundreds of drones with flashing lights were controlled by a central computer to form the American flag as well as the logo of a major sponsor of the event.The reason for the remarkable span of uses of drones is the engineering inside them.

But could a flock of drones be launched to search and help track bushfires, without human control? Could they be programmed to “talk” to each other to get the job done?

That’s the intriguing puzzle being worked on in Networked Systems at the ANU Research School of Engineering.

A team is researching networked systems of agents that have the ability to sense, compute, communicate and interact – in particular, drones.

Engineering PhD student Mengbin (Ben) Ye explains that drones are autonomous vehicles that operate without a human or pilot on board.

“Most people only think of flying drones, but they can also be underwater vehicles or ground robots,” he says.

“In recent years, drone technology has become cheaper and more accessible, making drones a cultural phenomenon.

You’ve probably seen them flying around at events taking videos and photos, or at your local park being used as a remote-controlled toy.”

The team, led by Associate Professor Brad Yu, has been engaged in the research of networked systems and in particular drones for more than a decade. PhD student Ben Ye, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Zhiyong Sun and Emeritus Professor Brian Anderson have all been working in this field for the past few years along with other members of the team.

“We are specifically interested in creating distributed algorithms that enable a team of drones to work together,” Sun says.

"Each drone has sensors, cameras or transmitters that allow them to interact with other drones in the team. We develop algorithms so that together, these drones work cooperatively to achieve a global task, such as flying in a formation, conducting surveillance on a target or area of land, or search and rescue.

“In order to achieve the global task, we design distributed algorithms that specify which drones should communicate with each other, who should sense what, and who should move where. Each task might require a different algorithm, and some can be very challenging to develop.”

Unlike the drone display in the skies above Lady Gaga, the algorithms the ANU team is developing for drones are distributed, so they do not require a central commanding unit, and do not have a preprogrammed flight path for each drone.“The same algorithms used to control five drones can be used to control 500 or 5,000 drones,” Sun says.

“However, a key challenge is the wide number of scenarios that must be studied and it can be a very complicated process to design algorithms which are guaranteed to work.”

The ANU researchers have been collaborating and applying their research with the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG), the research arm of the Australian Government Department of Defence, for almost 10 years.

“We have worked on a number of different tasks for DSTG, including locating transmitted signals using low-cost sensors, flying formations of drones where each drone must keep a constant speed, and determining how to best place sensors – which might be a patrolling drone – to detect a moving target,” Yu says.

“The DSTG has recently been interested in a type of drone that is lightweight and has extreme endurance, but is cheaper and less well-equipped than the multimillion dollar military drones we typically see in the news.

“By using distributed control, a team of these drones can work together to be just as effective at achieving a task as a multimillion dollar drone. Each application scenario has its own challenges and constraints, so we work closely with DSTG to design distributed algorithms specifically for a range of applications.

“We’re currently working on developing algorithms for teams of drones, where some drones have a Global Positioning System (GPS) and others do not. The GPS might be jammed by an enemy or the drones might be flying indoors, between buildings or in a valley.

“The problem is made extremely difficult because each drone can only carry a small payload, so they have limited sensing equipment.”

Ye gives a visual picture of the problem. “It’s like wandering through a pitch-black cave, guided only by a friend who can see in the dark and tells you where to avoid the spikey rocks,” he says.

“We have developed solutions for the basic problem by getting the drones to cooperate, but there are still additional issues we want to look at.”

Looking ahead, the world-leading researchers would like to expand the horizons and applications of distributed control for teams of drones.

“Our goal is to not simply carry out research on drones – we want to research how teams of drones can solve a wide range of problems in civilian and military life,” Yu says.

“From our success with DSTG, we hope that in the future we will be able to integrate leading experts at ANU in biology, forestry, earth sciences among others so we can apply our drone technology in other fields, incorporating emerging techniques such as swarm intelligence.”

This article was originally published in ANU Reporter

Image gallery

Updated:  8 September 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing