A ‘swarm’ of more than 100 autonomous ground and aerial robots has been controlled by just one person.

Designed to show that an individual can handle such a role without an ‘undue workload’, the demonstration took place as part of research at Oregon State University.

The findings represent a “big step toward efficiently and economically using swarms in a range of roles, from wildland firefighting to package delivery to disaster response in urban environments,” a university announcement said.

Part of a Darpa programme known as Offset (Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics), the four-year project involved swarms of up to 250 aerial drones and ground rovers. The autonomous vehicles gathered information in ‘concrete canyon’ urban surroundings where line-of-sight and satellite communications were impaired by buildings.

Researcher Julie A Adams’ team developed the system infrastructure and integrated the work of other teams focused on swarm tactics, autonomy, ‘human-swarm teaming’, physical experimentation and virtual environments. The project combined off-the-shelf technologies with autonomous capabilities to allow them to be deployed by a single commander.

Research and development consultancy Smart Information Flow Technologies developed a virtual reality interface called I3, which lets the commander control the swarm with high-level directions.

“The commanders weren’t physically driving each individual vehicle, because if you're deploying that many vehicles, they can't – a single human can’t do that,” Adams said.

“The idea is that the swarm commander can select a ‘play’ to be executed and can make minor adjustments to it, like a quarterback would in the NFL. The objective data from the trained swarm commanders demonstrated that a single human can deploy these systems in built environments, which has very broad implications beyond this project.”

Testing took place at multiple Department of Defence facilities, during which swarm commanders provided information about their workload and how stressed or fatigued they were every 10 minutes. During the final field exercise, featuring more than 100 vehicles, the commanders’ workload levels were also assessed using physiological sensors that fed information into an algorithm.

“The swarm commanders’ workload estimate did cross the overload threshold frequently, but just for a few minutes at a time, and the commander was able to successfully complete the missions, often under challenging temperature and wind conditions,” Adams said.

Information collected by the swarms could keep US troops and civilians safe, the researchers said.

Such systems could also potentially find use in an offensive capacity, with drones playing a central role in recent frontline combat around the world.

Delivery drone fleets will also require individuals to take responsibility for large numbers of aircraft at once, Adams said. “I’m not saying our work is a final solution that shows everything is OK, but it is the first step toward getting additional data that would facilitate that kind of a system.”

extracted from IMechE website, read more here

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