In 2010, Haiti suffered a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that decimated much of its infrastructure and left many under rubble. An extraordinary group of 62 teams approaching some 1,800 people were able to rescue 132 victims in an 11-day period, and while those efforts are amazingly commendable, there’s a future in which drones could assist in those missions.

But not just one drone: Imagine a swarm.

“Imagine having a large area that you should monitor as fast as possible looking for survivors or victims. Using many UAVs instead of a single drone helps you a lot in this case,” Carmine Recchiuto, a research fellow in the department of informatics, bioengineering, robotics, and system sciences (DIBRIS), at the University of Genova, tells Inverse. Indeed, you can adopt some strategies for terrain-covering that involve a cooperative behavior between the robots. They can share a common map, communicating to each other the position already monitored and choosing in real-time the next position to be visited.”

A drone flies over collapsed buildings during removal operations on May 2, 2015 in Sankhu, Nepal.

Recchiuto specializes in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for the use of post-disaster assessment, which basically means he wants to use flying robots to help find and rescue people caught in a disaster. We’re not far off from a future where these drones are outfitted with thermal sensors or other tracking devices that could help teams on the ground with search and rescue operations.

One day, Recchiuto hopes these systems might be completely autonomous to the point where they could run on their own without human supervision. But, the technology is not up to that standard yet, which leaves researchers such as Recchiuto to come up with a system that could allow a human to easily control and monitor a system of four to 50 drones at a time.

A team at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California accomplished that very goal of flying 50 drones at once last fall, but the drones followed dog fight-style patterns in the sky, rather than a surveillance formation.

In a report titled Visual feedback with multiple cameras in a UAVs Human-Swarm Interface penned by Recchiuto as well as Antonio Sgorbissa and Renato Zaccaria, the team details two main forms of swarm drone use. The first is how most might imagine a swarm, which is a bird-like formation cutting through the sky and scanning the ground with multiple cameras. The other utilizes a smaller number of drones taking individual paths to work together to scan an area grid.

Drones could learn in real time and better scan a disaster area for survivors. 

In either of these scenarios there’s an inherent problem: Where do you put the perspective cameras that a human operator would monitor? Looking at 50 first-person cameras is too confusing, which is why the team started looking at the possibility of a separate drone that would break away from the pack and fly above the swarm. A drone leader, if you will.

“Experimental tests showed that using first-person cameras may cause failures in recognizing hazards, degradation of situational awareness, disorientation, in a greater extent than using external cameras,” says Recchiuto. They found it was best to use four camera monitors: Two on the drone leader pointing forward and downward as well as two separate ones on the outer border of the swarm.

These bird-like formations would be highly desired for scientific monitoring as well as everyday agricultural uses, but Charlton Evans, commercial aviations projects manager with Insitu, the independent drone subsidiary of Boeing, says regulations won’t allow it yet.

“The FAA is not yet comfortable with the concept of one pilot being in control of multiple aircraft up in the national airspace,” Evans tells Inverse. “The agriculture world wants that, search and rescue wants that, it’s cost-efficient if we can fly multiple aircraft off one guy, that makes sense to everybody. But, then doing that in the national airspace in a way that does not increase risk is a hoop we’ll have to jump through.”

This shows how a basic small drone swarm of three might cover an area. 

Evans says the technology for an automated air traffic control system platform is promising in terms of regulation. Recchiuto’s search and rescue research operates similarly, as it uses an algorithm and communication between the drones to scan the grid of a disaster area.

“That’s probably an area where the most progress has been made,” says Evans. “Within the next couple years, this is one place where the technology is going to help write the regulations because it will change the way we do business below 400 feet.”

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