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Research from Oregon State University shows that a “swarm” of over 100 autonomous ground and aerial robots can be supervised by just one person. This discovery represents a big step toward efficiently and economically using swarms in various roles, from wildland firefighting to package delivery to disaster response in urban environments.

According to Techxplore, the results of the study were published in “Field Robotics” and stem from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s program known as OFFSET, which is short for Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics. During the four-year project, researchers deployed swarms of up to 250 autonomous vehicles (multi-rotor aerial drones, and ground rovers) that were able to gather information in urban surroundings where buildings impair line-of-sight, satellite-based communication.

Julie A. Adams of the OSU College of Engineering was a co-principal investigator on one of two swarm system integrator teams that developed the system infrastructure and integrated the work of other teams focused on swarm tactics, swarm autonomy, human-swarm teaming, physical experimentation and virtual environments.

The tests were each stretched over several days, while each multi-day field exercise introduced additional vehicles, and every 10 minutes swarm commanders provided information about their workload and how stressed or fatigued they were. During the final field exercise (which featured over 100 vehicles) the users’ workload levels were also assessed through physiological sensors.

“The project required taking off-the-shelf technologies and building the autonomy needed for them to be deployed by a single human called the swarm commander. That work also required developing not just the needed systems and the software, but also the user interface for that swarm commander to allow a single human to deploy these ground and aerial systems.”

A collaboration with Smart Information Flow Technologies yielded I3 – a virtual reality interface that lets the commander control the swarm with high-level directions. “The commanders weren’t physically driving each individual vehicle, because if you’re deploying that many vehicles, they can’t—a single human can’t do that,” Adams explained. “The idea is that the swarm commander can select a play to be executed and can make minor adjustments to it… The objective data from the trained swarm commanders demonstrated that a single human can deploy these systems in built environments, which has very broad implications beyond this project.”