Drone Swarm! 50 UAVs Controlled by One Pilot
The test flight set a new record and could lead to teams of drones being deployed on search-and-rescue missions.
You know the times are a-changing when postgraduate student projects involve the phrase "record-breaking drone swarm."
That's what's happening over at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., where a team of students recently launched 50 aerial drones, all piloted by a single (human) operator.
The team used custom-made Zephyr 2 flying-wing style UAVs, each outfitted with a special Wi-Fi based communication system. The Wi-Fi setup is different from usual control systems in that it allows for a kind of broadcast network among all drones in the flight. It gets complicated, but you can find detailed specifications at DIY Drones.
Using a specially developed algorithm, the team established a flight system in which follower drones get their instructions from a lead drone - and also communicate with one another on the fly, as it were.
Putting 50 drones in the air - controlled by a single operator on the ground - is a new world record, according to the NPS team. The project also required some tricky launch strategies. Because the Zephyr UAVs can't be hand-launched like smaller drones, each had to catapulted off a chain-driven launcher.
Battery time with each individual drone is only 45 to 50 minutes, so to successfully complete the cooperative flight plan experiment, the team had to get 50 drones in the air in about 30 minutes. They eventually launched 51 in total, in just under 28 minutes, with an average of 33 seconds between launches.
Flight configuration for the initial test run consisted of two "stacks" of 25 drones each, with drones separated 15 meters apart vertically. But the test run is just the first, and the least complicated, of several flight algorithms that the team has tested in computer simulations.
Using different flight plans, the system could have potentially useful and even life-saving applications down the road. The NPS team is currently working on search-and-rescue algorithms that would allow camera-equipped drones to search a given area in the shortest possible amount of time.
Domestic uses for drones are growing to a wide range of applications not even considered a few years ago.