Drone Swarms in Action

Drone Swarms in Action

To watch the fascinating video of a drone swarm released by the Department of Defense this week is to see life not only imitate science-fiction movies, but also show us how far-ahead in real-life these robotic swarms are.

(Article about the successful testing of them in January is here.)

Beyond the drone-delivery phenomenon pushed by Amazon and others, or the Federal Aviation Administration’s attempts to come up with rules for hobbyist drones without a court knocking them back, these three videos in my opinion sum up the major implications that these robotic swarms represent for so many industry verticals, beyond construction (but watch how these things can build stuff in the next Vijay Kumar video farther down).

The spatial reasoning that these drones display — the leader-follower networking capabilities, and other behaviors such as “collective decision-making, adaptive formation-flying and self-healing” is at once amazing and,  for those of us who watch too many sci-fi movies, slightly terrifying and exciting at the same time.

But when I think of the blistering pace with which these machines are advancing in intelligence, and how countries not so friendly to us would use them, it’s also reassuring to know the DoD is advancing their research and use.


Drones have been a huge help to constructors for some time now, especially for checking on hard-to-reach spaces in the building trades and tracking as-builts. But what does feel new, nano-second new, are the advanced AI and adaptive abilities infused in these “robot swarms.”

In this TED Talk video from 2015,  Vijay Kumar of the University of Pennsylvania engineering department and of Kumar Robotics  shows how robotic swarms are building high-resolution maps, and working together on (simple) construction (with a cameo by David Pogue).

Take this video from a 2016  TED Talk by Raffaello D’Andrea of DynamicWorks, who is also a professor of dynamic systems and control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich, Wikipedia link is here.) to see how algorithms create tech creatures that can solve problems on the fly, such as shifting aerial moves after he clips one of its wings, and re-orienting themselves as they are thrust into new surroundings.


Here’s the video of D’Andrea clipping one of the drone’s wings (at about 6:36).

Updated 5/27/17 to add correct video of the wing-clipping moment.


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