Virtual 'top hats' ensure swarming drones won't crash

Georgia Tech's robotics lab figured out how to keep swarms of quadcopters flying in tight formation.

Georgia Tech

Drone swarms can be used for lots of things, like creating holograms, putting on a Superbowl halftime show or collecting military intelligence. One of the problems with a bunch of quadcopters executing maneuvers in close proximity, however, is that they can crash when they touch or fly under each other. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found a way to avoid both issues by creating a virtual bumper area around each copter so that they don't accidentally touch. They've also ensured that each copter has a little "top hat" of space above it so it won't go underneath another drone and get caught up in its airflow.

Ph.D. student Li Wang figured out that the top hat must be as tall as five times the diameter from one rotor to another by flying drones atop one another. The 0.6-meter vertical space ensures the quadcopters avoid undercutting each other. A set of algorithms gives the drones the ability to quickly maneuver out of the way when they detect another robot next to or above them.

As drone swarms become more ubiquitous, they'll need systems like these to keep people and themselves safe. "It's not possible for one person to control dozens or hundreds of robots at a time. That's why we need machines to figure it out themselves," said Magnus Egerstedt, director of Georgia Tech's Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines.

Another team at the lab are finding ways for autonomous blimps to detect and react to human faces and hand gestures in a project to find better ways to get people interacting with drones. Slow-moving blimps are more approachable, according to the researchers, and may someday take the place of store greeters or information kiosks. "Imagine a blimp greeting you at the front of the hardware store, ready to offer assistance," said project lead Fumin Zhang. "People are good at reading people's faces and sensing if they need help or not. Robots could do the same. And if you needed help, the blimp could ask, then lead you to the correct aisle, flying above the crowds and out of the way."