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In order for quadrotor drones to work together in swarms, most drones rely on technology such as GPS or an external motion-capture system to keep them working together. This limitation reduces where these drone swarms can be used.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania may have a solution, however. In a step toward autonomy for flying robot swarms, they managed to teach a swarm of a dozen quadrotors to fly together in formation effectively — using nothing more than a small downward-looking camera with a 160-degree field of view and a simple inertial measurement unit (IMU.) The result is reportedly the world’s biggest swarm of drones not relying on either GPS or motion capture.

Each drone in the group keeps track of its precise location and then sends updates to a ground station, which sends commands back to the swarm to make them change their location. The drones follow instructions that happen to involve large numbers of drones working together in coordination. The system makes it possible to add more drones or easily reduce the numbers without a problem.

“The solution is cheap and inexpensive, and the architecture we propose is scalable and extensible,” Dr. Giuseppe Loianno, a research scientist on the project, told “This is the first time that perception, planning, and control are combined for autonomous navigation of multiple interchangeable aerial vehicles — up to 12 quadrotors — without relying on GPS or an external motion capture system. We have released all the hardware and software components used in this work. In the future, we want anyone being able to fly a swarm of aerial vehicles without the use of expensive motion capture systems, and in areas where GPS is not available.”