An updated version of a battle-tested nano-UAV stole the show at an annual trial of military gadgets at Fort Benning, Georgia, last month. Tech readers may be nearing peak-UAV, but this autonomous bug-like vehicle is worth paying attention to.
The PD-100 Black Hornet, manufactured by Prox Dynamics, is an air vehicle about the size of a man’s finger. The UAV weighs 18 grams and now contains day and night-vision cameras that send still images or video back to an operator via a data-link. Designed for reconnaissance, the vehicle is incapable of attack or defense. But its size and ability to fly autonomously or semi-autonomously make it a clear precursor to the next generation of swarm robots. Welcome to the future of warfare.
According to a recent report by the Center for New American Security titled “The Coming Swarm: The Quality of Quantity,” the military is going miniature. Here’s why:
Today the U.S. military faces a pernicious cycle of ever rising platform costs and shrinking quantities. As a result, the number of combat ships and aircraft in the U.S. inventory has steadily declined, even during periods of significant
The first thing to hit Iain Couzin when he walked into the Oxford lab where he kept his locusts was the smell, like a stale barn full of old hay. The second, third, and fourth things to hit him were locusts. The insects frequently escaped their cages and careened into the faces of scientists and lab techs. The room was hot and humid, and the constant commotion of 20,000 bugs produced a miasma of aerosolized insect exoskeleton. Many of the staff had to wear respirators to avoid developing severe allergies. “It wasn’t the easiest place to do science,” Couzin says.
In the mid-2000s that lab was, however, one of the only places on earth to do the kind of science Couzin wanted. He didn’t care about locusts, per se—Couzin studies collective behavior. That’s swarms, flocks, schools, colonies … anywhere the actions of individuals turn into the behaviors of a group. Biologists had already teased apart the anatomy of locusts in detail, describing their transition from wingless green loners at birth to flying black-and-yellow adults. But you could dissect one after
Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Grasp (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing & Perception) Lab gathered a dozen or so quadrotor unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), programmed them to work in concert, and set them loose on a roomful of improvised instruments. The hovering swarm dutifully reproduced the James Bond theme song.
In biology, a swarm is a collection of individuals that manifest complex behavior without a leader calling the shots. Imagine birds spontaneously gathering on a single tree, only to lift off en masse moments later. Scientists have applied swarm intelligence to driving robots, but they now have the processing power and sensing capability to apply it to flying ones too.
To achieve a swarm, scientists program each unit with a set of simple rules. For example: Maintain constant separation, steer in the same direction, and always move toward the center of the swarm. The result is a mass of individuals that can move as a group. Scientists at Grasp recently used a UAV swarm to pick up and haul heavy objects.
There are many applications for UAV swarms, says Vijay Kumar,
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The robot revolution has already begun. Robots are available for purchase on Amazon, they are in our homes, and they are helping soldiers stay safe in warzones.
But, what is the future of practical robotics? Dr. James McLurkin, a Google engineer and roboticist, believes that swarm robotics, or groups of robotics that work together to accomplish goals, is the research that will push the field forward.
The presentation, titled “The future of robotics is swam,” opened the 2015 IdeaFestival in Louisville, Kentucky on September 29. It was part of the Thrivals 8.0 program in which the audience is primarily high school math and science students on the first day of the event.
McLurkin opened by explaining how the world’s current views on robots typically fall into one of three plots that are perpetuated by the media:
- Frankenstein plot—society’s view
- Tin Man plot—the quest to be more human
- Terminator plot—the killer robot world takeover
However, these views misunderstand how robots can help humans accomplish more, McLurkin stressed. But, how do we make sure that robots continue to work well with humans in the future? McLurkin noted the three laws of robotics as quoted from Isaac Asimov in his book I, Robot:
- A robot may not injure a human being
It all goes back to the birds and the bees. The fish too. Even slime-molds. Really, it goes to all social creatures that amplify their collective intelligence by forming real-time synchronous systems. We have many names for these natural assemblages, including flocks, schools, shoals, blooms, colonies, herds, and swarms. Whatever we call them, one thing is clear – millions of years of evolution produced these highly coordinated behaviors because of the survival benefits they provide to a great many species. In this way, nature had demonstrated that social creatures, by functioning together in closed-loop systems, can outperform the vast majority of individual members when solving problems and making decisions, thereby boosting overall survival of their population.1,2
For convenience I use the word “swarm” to refer to cohesive groupings of individual members, all working together as a unified dynamic system, their collective behavior tightly coordinated by real-time feedback loops. Unlike discordant groups (i.e. crowds), swarms behave as unique entities, operating as a coherent unit that displays emergent intelligence, even emergent personality. With that definition in mind, the big question that has propelled my explorations over the last few years is simply this: “Can humans swarm?”
Certainly humans didn’t evolve the ability to swarm, for we lack