Drone swarms that can think for themselves

Flocking birds and schooling fish are the inspiration for creating a swarm of drones that can pilot themselves, and relay critical information to combat soldiers when other communication channels aren’t available.

Defence researchers are building the software to make this a reality, as part of the Self-organising Communications and Autonomous Delivery Service project.

While they’re currently working with octocopter drones (a drone with eight rotors), the software could also be used in self-driving buggies and underwater vehicles.

It’s based on the concept of emergent behaviour.

“Emergent behaviour can be seen when you look at a large group of things in nature, when each individual is following their own simple, local rules,” says Dr Robert Hunjet from the Defence Science and Technology Group.

Those rules could be as simple as flying forward without crashing into the drone in front.

“What can happen is that when everybody acts on their own simple rules, the flock exhibits something that’s far more complicated than just the rules they’re following.”

So instead of having to tell every drone where it needs to be all the time—which uses a huge amount of communication resources—drones of the future will be able to figure that out for themselves, to best complete the mission they’ve been given.

“That’s the beauty of it: the drones will make use of whatever information is available,” Robert says.

The team is currently planning a series of trials with the US Navy Postgraduate School to test the software further.

Thomas Stevens configuring the autonomous drones. (Credit: Defence Science and Technology Group)

Banner image: a drone in autonomous flight over the Woomera test range. Credit: Defence Science and Technology Group