From our Wired Science blog. This team is presenting this week at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in San Francisco this week. I'm speaking there, too, on Wed morning at 8:00 am


Swarms of flying robots, flocking autonomously like birds, have taken to the air near Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

At Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale’s Laboratory of Intelligence Systems in Lausanne, Sabine Hauert, Severin Leven and Dario Floreano have found a way to make small, fixed-wing machines fly together, migrate and avoid crashing. The swarms can be used for imaging and mapping the ground. In the future they may fly on search and surveillance missions.

The swarming behavior is based on a three-dimensional algorithm that represents the movements of schools of fish and flocks of birds. The algorithm, developed in 1986 by Craig Reynolds, was first used as a computer graphics tool. In the algorithm, as in real flocks, the individual agents behave simply. They respond to their close neighbors without considering the movements of the group. Yet out of the noise, larger patterns emerge, coherent and beautiful.


“Flocking requires three things. You need to move with the same speed and direction as your neighbors, you need to avoid hitting them and you need to stay close,” said Hauert, who is now a post-doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When programming the robots, Hauert and Floreano added in a fourth ability: migration. With this ability, the robot swarm can travel to a set location, making them more useful as search and surveillance tools.

The robots were built by senseFly, a Swiss startup founded in late 2009, as a spin-off of the work done at the Floreano’s lab. The bots communicate with each other via a simple WiFi dongle connected to the on-board Linux computer that runs the autopilot program. In this project, Hauert and Floreano searched for the best balance between the robots’ weight, cost, turning ability and the range of their communications, while keeping their ability to flock.

“You can imagine two robots working together like holding hands with someone,” Hauert said. “If one of you changes direction, but the other person can’t respond quickly enough, then you break the connection.”

To perfect the technology, they tested the robots over 200 times in the field, without any crashes. The trials began simply, eventually reaching a flock of 10 autonomous fliers. More could be added, they believe. They’ve simulated up to 100 flocking robots. Next Floreano is interested in adding different kinds of sensors, such as cameras modeled on insect eyes, so the robots would be able to avoid obstacles while staying as a flock.


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Comment by Kirill on September 27, 2011 at 7:45am

Chris, what are you going to talk about there? Can we see e-version (video or pdf) of your report after the conference?

Comment by John Hudson on September 27, 2011 at 6:30pm

I am interested in knowing what kind of embedded Linux system these robots use. Is it a Gumstix board, perhaps?



Comment by abey on September 28, 2011 at 12:17am

@john they used PXA270-based Colibri boards for this but they are now migrating to Gumstix Overo.

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:18am

"a single operator can ... " but it take a team of interns to manage the lipo batteries ;)

Comment by abey on September 28, 2011 at 12:20am

@mike quad-charger :)

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:23am

10 robots * 2 batteries each = 20 batteries minimum / quad charger = four rounds of charging even on a quad-changer == interns with a battery inventory and performance tracking spreadsheet ;)

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:23am

sorry, *five* rounds of charging 

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:25am

nice looking changer, do you have one?

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:26am

or maybe ... five of them?

Comment by Michael Pursifull on September 28, 2011 at 12:34am

I cannot make it to SF in the next few hours... but if I could, I would, just to see the talk. The "no crashes" highlights something that has me wondering, something that is not mentioned in the video itself. How do they keep from knocking into one another? Is that implicitly part of the flocking design? I suppose I have always thought of flocking algorithms in terms of a point-object, since I have always worked with them in the form of computer graphics. And even with computer graphics, it is easy to simply add repel radius to them. But for winged aircraft. Well, once you start thinking about that, it the various problems of attitude affecting not only turning radius, but also restricting direction of travel in 3D space, and avoiding the *future* position of so many other robots in a limited space... and then I simply have even more respect for the work done here. And more questions... 


Best of luck to both this team and Chris with the talks at the conference ... in about 8 hours.


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