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There are many benefits to using a swarm of smaller drones working together to achieve a common goal in place of one large one, claims Dr. Arlie Chapman from the Melbourne School of Engineering, an expert on swarm robotics. Drone swarms can help particularly in missions such as cleaning up an oil spill, environmental monitoring or searching for survivors of a mine collapse, she adds. The potential also includes aerospace and defense industries, critical infrastructure and logistics, agricultural robotics, and more.
Not only is there the element of redundancy with smaller vehicles – losing one small UAV out of a group is less of a problem than losing a single large UAV – but there are also the implementation benefits. For one thing, there’s the improved coverage capability and reduced cost. “A swarm of cheap small robots, each with little capability, can replace one costly highly-capable robot,” she says.
Mechatronic Engineering, her field of expertise, combines the engineering of both electrical and mechanical systems, including robotics.
In Australia, UAVs are now used for agricultural monitoring as well as for surf and rescue in the ocean, which means getting the job done faster which is particularly important for time-sensitive applications. Currently for rescue operations, a trained lifesaver is needed to fly the UAV. But wouldn’t it be easier if the UAV could work autonomously, which avoids taking the lifesaver away from their area of expertise, while adding another pair of ‘eyes’ watching swimmers in the surf?
“In bush fire-fighting operations, autonomous systems can work in conjunction with humans. A flock of aerial vehicles could support firefighters by providing critical information on the changing fire conditions. As firefighters move with the fire front, the flock can move in concert, better positioning themselves to gather and relay more significant information. This is called human-swarm interaction,” says Dr Chapman, according to phys.org.
In addition, human-robot interaction and collaboration is an opportunity to combine forces to solve society’s grand challenges. “In the future, UAVs will become more inconspicuous, acting as big data collectors. Smaller vehicles will be a core component here, quietly collecting real-time, bird’s eye information critical for interconnected systems to perform well in aggregate.”
“These robots could provide us with reliable data that increases our knowledge of the world. Precision watering of crops, for example, could supply us with more accurate maps of land erosion, crop health and water run-off, while also minimising water usage,” she says.