“Generally speaking, we don’t like them to be able to shoot on their own. I mean, nobody wants to create Skynet.”
Developing unmanned vehicles that can work together on their own represents the latest in drone technology, a global industry that analysts predict could be worth $127 billion by 2020. Boeing is among the leaders in such research, testing collaborative drones in its new laboratory, an 81,000-square-foot warehouse where the company tests the ability of drones developed by universities and businesses.
Engineers at the laboratory recently conducted an experiment where an unmanned air vehicle and an unmanned ground vehicle had to communicate together to resolve a disaster. In the simulation, the machines had to work together to shut off a makeshift gas valve. The air vehicle scanned the area for a usable path to reach the valve and sent directions to the ground vehicle.
Research has shown that using multiple drones is more effective and efficient than using one. For example, a 2014 study conducted by the RAND Corporation found that, in a “hunter-killer mission,” a remotely piloted unmanned aircraft could track a target well. A group of drones performed better than one drone, even though the sole vehicle had more sophisticated features.
“For the main part of the mission, the difficulty was in locating the target,” said Lance Menthe, the study’s lead author. “In that case, having multiple points of view was as good as having one large eye.”
The Air Force commissioned that study to learn how to make drones more cost-effective and more advanced than the ones used so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. If teams of drones could be programmed to carry out missions on their own, the armed services would need fewer people to monitor them.
“For some of our military customers, we want them to get more and more automated where vehicles are pretty much reacting by themselves and then informing everyone else what they’re doing,” explained Mike Abraham, manager of Boeing’s Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory
However, challenges remain in developing such technology. Maintaining communication between a group of drones, for instance, isn’t easy, Menthe said. Any number of things can cause lapses in communication between two devices, similar to how cell phones often drop calls.
For Menthe, what’s more important than making sure two drones can talk to each other is ensuring that human handlers maintain control over the technology. The algorithms being tested at Boeing’s new laboratory are critical in developing faith that the machines will perform as intended.
“[Getting] the technologies to talk back and forth between the aircraft is only half the puzzle,” Menthe said. “The other half is making sure that you’ve got the people who are piloting or working with the data able to give the right commands. It’s a human-computer team.”
Interesting work being done at Boeing. The concept of an eye in the sky “scouting” to provide directional information to a unit on the ground is a recurring theme and an area in which a lot of work is being done.Of course the concept of a scout is a tried and true military best practice You can take a look at this story out of Switzerland which explores the concept in some detail and also the DJI-Ford $100,000 Developer Challenge,
The concept of a scout is a tried and true military best practice. While there is no word about the winners, the DJI-Ford $100,000 Developer Challenge, Send A Drone Out To Scout is a civilian application of the concept – Ford holds a patent on the idea of using a drone to guide and autonomous vehicle.
For a more technical deep dive, Swiss Mix: Combining Terrestrial And Aerial Robots looks at the work being done byProfessor Davide Scaramuzza, the head of the University of Zurich’s Robotics and Perception Group.
What I have not seen a reference to before is the idea of using a swarm to acquire and track a target. Especially provocative is the qualifier “even though the sole vehicle had more sophisticated features.”