These Drones Flock (Almost) Like Birds

After long scientific endeavor, these drones flocked together

John Biehler

It was simple, in theory. Program the drones to follow three basic rules of flocking and a coordinated, free-flying horde would be born.

"Simple" turned into a five-year slog of trial and error. But such is science, and finally this Hungarian team of scientists has reported success. Their ten homemade quadcopters recently lifted off a field outside Budapest and did exactly what they were supposed to: they flocked.

Writes Ed Yong, who's been following this technology for a while:

They’re autonomous, meaning that they compute their flight plans on their own, without any central control. They can follow instructions, but they work out their own paths using GPS signals to navigate and radio signals to talk to one another. They’re the closest thing we have to an artificial flock of birds.

Over the years, various other groups have been working towards the same thing, though. Tamas Vicsek, the physicist who led the Hungarian team, says competitors’ previous successes all fall short of this latest advance in one way or another. Vicsek’s drones are unique in their flexible and resilient response to uncontrolled curveballs, such as sudden gusts of wind.

They can fly in formation, follow a leader, and even individually wait their turn when the group enters an imaginary cramped space. All without the help of a central computer or controlling device, the researchers say.

The researchers hope to use the flying robots to advance understanding of how birds move together in sync. It’s just the latest piece in the ongoing puzzle of how swarms work. But who knows? Maybe they will all be delivering packages for Amazon one day. 

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