If you have ever walked out your front door and been greeted by the fluttering of a flock of birds taking off into the air, you are certainly familiar with flocking. There are a number of reasons that birds fly in flocks. One of those reasons is to help protect them from predators and another is for navigation purposes.
Researchers have been trying to recreate this avian flocking capability with automated robotic aircraft with varying degrees of success. Researchers from the Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary including Gabor Vásárhelyi, have announced that they have successfully demonstrated the first autonomous robots that are capable of flocking outdoors like starlings would.
Flocking in autonomous drone aircraft is very difficult to do. The researchers say that each of the members of the flock has to be able to respond quickly to changes and sense the environment. In the case of drone aircraft, the flyers need to be able to accurately measure velocity and position for themselves as well as the velocity and position of other drones nearby.
All of the decisions that are required to operate successfully in a flock have to be accomplished using the drones own internal decision making processes. The researchers used commercially available quadcopters called the MK Basicset L4-ME. The quadcopter is capable of self-stabilized flight and has a handheld remote. The quadcopters were the modified for autonomous flight.
The team had the copters fly at one altitude to turn the 3D flocking issue into a 2D problem. The flock created doesn't rely on central control for its behavior. The team says one of the biggest challenges was handling the delay between receiving information by the drones and performing the flight changes. The team was eventually able to get their drones to fly in ring shapes and lines. They also noticed that the flock would self-organize within pre-determined boundaries.