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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) typically fly alone with a team of ground operators controlling their activities through tele operation or waypoint-based routing.  But one aircraft can only carry so many sensors, limiting its capabilities. That’s one reason why a fleet of autonomous aircraft can be better than one flying alone.

According to Domain B.Com, the Georgia Tech Research Institute is conducting research to improve the capabilities of autonomous systems collaborating as teams, thereby reducing the load on human operators.

In one of the first autonomous demonstrations, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has successfully commanded three fully autonomous, collaborating UAVs. The machines flew in close formation at the same altitude, separated by approximately 50 meters as they executed figure-eight patterns. The research is part of GTRI’s efforts to improve the capabilities for autonomous systems collaborating as teams.

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Unmanned Systems Conference 2014 – Israel

GTRI operated the three UAVs over the skies of Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. A single plane was initially designated as the leader and commanded to fly autonomous orbits. The two ”follower” UAVs joined the orbits, flying with rotational offsets of 15 and 30 degrees, respectively, from the leader.

The lead UAV shared its current position with the follower UAVs several times per second, allowing the followers to calculate the control changes necessary to reach the desired position.

The followers also used the leader’s information to send commands to their on-board autopilots, which adjusted the controls and throttle for each aircraft. GTRI’s autonomous algorithms and applications are general enough that they can be used with different UAVs and autopilot systems.

The aircraft in the Fort Benning demonstration were quarter-scale Piper Cub airframes with a wingspan of approximately eight feet. They are able to carry a mission computer, autopilot system, and sensor payloads.