To infinity and beyond: Teaching drones to interact and work together

Drones are able to reach places that humans cannot and by teaching them how to work together it is hoped they can be used in crisis situations such as search and rescue missions.

One such robotics project at the University of Sheffield, UK, is trying to teaching quadcopters to learn from the environment they are in by 3D mapping what is in front of them.

The team from the university is also trying to enable the quadcopters to interact so it is possible they can work together.

Researchers are trying to programme the drones with intelligence to allow them to complete more complex tasks in environments that are unsafe for humans, such as areas affected by nuclear radiation or outer space.

The new programming developments in these robots enhance their learning and decision-making capabilities.

Professor Sandor Veres, who is leading the project, said: “We are used to the robots of science fiction films being able to act independently, recognise objects and individuals and make decisions.

“In the real world, however, although robots can be extremely intelligent individually, their ability to co-operate and interact with each other and with humans is still very limited.

“As we develop robots for use in space or to send into nuclear environments – places where humans cannot easily go – the goal will be for them to understand their surroundings and make decisions based on that understanding.”

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A team from the university is trying to teach the drones to achieve this level of intelligence by using a computer concept called game theory.

In game theory, robots treat their tasks as a game, record and learn from the behaviour of the other robots they encounter, and draw from their experiences to try to ‘win’.

Though the theory is based around competition, it encourages compatibility and teamwork within a group of robots.  As they learn to predict each other’s next moves, they avoid collisions and increase efficiency.

The quadcopters collect data through attached forward facing cameras that allow them to create 3D maps of their surroundings, also sensing barometric and ultrasonic information to add to their understanding.

The improved processing of this data will allow them to work both with humans and other robots, a skill that will be crucial if the robot is to work in high-pressure situations.

While quadcopters are being developed for emergency aid and for use in dangerous environments, other flying robots are being honed for recreational purposes.

airdog-drone

AirDog, an action sports drone, acts as a flying video crew. It follows its users through a tracking bracelet as they participate in sports like BMX, surfing and wake-boarding, taking high-quality videos and photographs.

The Airdog is manufactured by 3D printing, which allows for a lighter, less expensive design that can be sold as an accessible consumer product.

Essentially a quadcopter for the extreme sports market, the AirDog can record angles that a human could only achieve by filming from a helicopter.

Users program the desired distance, height and speed levels before they release the drone, and then it follows the user according to the desired specifications.

These different devices show just a small range of the possible applications for advanced flying robots.

Their ability to easily travel to places that humans cannot reach without the aid of a plane or helicopter makes them incredibly useful in all kinds of situations, from search-and-rescue missions to package deliveries. What other uses will we find for these sky-roaming drones?


Featured image courtesy of Kaometet, first body image courtesy of Steve Lodefink, second body image courtesy of Helico Aerospace Industries.


Drones: Is there anything they can’t deliver?

It may be little more than 100 years ago that the Wright brothers took to the skies as they pioneered the world’s first aeroplane, but now the race is on to conquer the drone market.

In recent months it’s been claimed that pizzas, shopping, government documents and practically anything else you can think of will be delivered by drones. We soon won’t be able to move for them.

Facebook is the most recently reported company seemingly entering the drone market, as its rumoured purchase of manufacturer Titan Aerospace looks more realistic.

There’s no doubting the potential that drones could offer for delivery services and creative marketing departments in the future, but at present there are a lot of crucial problems that need to be solved before they can take off commercially.

Everything from ensuring the product is delivered to the right person, avoiding interception en-route and navigating adverse weather conditions are some of the hurdles that need to be climbed before drone delivery is a realistic possibility.

We’ve looked at some of the most ‘creative’ claims, or stunts, when it comes to companies utilising drones.

Beer

Ice fishers in Minnesota, US, were left disappointed when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded a local brewery’s beer delivering drone as it was outside the rules. Flying drones above 400 feet is not permitted in the country and commercial organisations are not allowed to use them either. The thirsty fishermen will have to return to shore for ice cold beers until the FAA announces legislation in 2015.

Pizza

The ‘DomiCopter’, by pizza giants Domino’s, flies over UK fields and rivers directed by a member of staff to deliver not one but two pizzas to a customer (or a lucky passerby) who happens to be outside waiting for the drone to arrive.

Official documents

In a move that can’t go wrong at all, the United Arab Emirates is set to launch a drone service that delivers government documents, packages and licences to officials. The unmanned aerial vehicles will be equipped with fingerprint and eye-recognition technology to try and prevent theft. The scheme is set to undergo a six month trial period in Dubai and then roll out to other parts of the country if the nation’s secrets haven’t been disclosed.

Parcels

The most high profile of the drone testing/stunts was by online shopping company Amazon who ambitiously stated customers could receive products 30 minutes after ordering them. Unlike the Minnesota brewery the company tested its drones outside of the US to get around the laws.

Finding bigfoot

It technically isn’t a company trying to make money from drones, but one ambitious group, The Falcon Project, are trying to launch a quiet, remote-controlled airship to find the large ape which has reportedly been spotted in the US. It sees the drone approach as being one of the best ways to hunt for the legendary creature over large areas.

credit-falconproject

Netflix

In many ways the video streaming company have hit the nail on the head when it comes to using drones. In their parody advert, which mocks many of the above, the company say that its ‘Drone-to-home’ project will deliver your disc to you within seconds of it being ordered.


Update

– It might not be all bad for the thirsty ice fishers as a judge in the US has ruled that commercially using drones is now legal. The ruling has effectively made the FAA’s current ban on drone use for commercial purposes not stand any longer. But if the FAA decides to appeal then the case could go to US Court of Appeals in Washington.



Image of ‘bigfoot’ drone courtesy of The Falcon Project.