Here’s a terrifying image: A “swarm” of drones dart through the open sky, thinking and moving as one group using a shared A.I. Imagine if the birds from The Birds were powered by a human using an app on their phone. Luckily, there’s been one big problem with that scene: drones that fly in swarms consistently crash into one other.

But researchers at Georgia Tech announced this week that they might have solved that problem by creating two new kinds of quadcopters that can swarm without crashing. The copters make use of what’s called a “barrier certificate” in order to define the space around themselves relative to the other drones. Dubbed more creatively a “Virtual Top Hat,” the barrier certificates ensure that the drones don’t collide with one another or fly too close together and disrupt the airflow of one of their companions. In a video released by researchers, the quadcopters can be seen flying in some pretty complex formations, all while zipping back and forth out of the way of the virtual top hats of the other drones.

A swarm of connected drones falls to the ground if one falls to the ground.
A swarm of connected drones falls to the ground if one falls to the ground. 

It’s not hard to imagine the real-world benefits of this technology on a larger scale. A world full of flying drones transporting people or delivering goods is a lot safer for those of us on the ground if the drones are really good at not crashing into one another.

“Our skies will become more congested with autonomous machines, whether they’re used for deliveries, agriculture or search and rescue,” said Magnus Egerstedt, director of the Georgia Tech Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines. One person can’t be relied upon to control them all.

A Smart Blimp

GT researchers also announced an autonomous blimp that can detect faces and hand motions. The smart blimps are equally translatable into real-world applications. Essentially a silver balloon with a propeller drone affixed to the bottom, the drones recognize whether a human wants to interact with them, explains researcher Fumin Zhang in a video as the autonomous blimp dutifully follows him around. In this way, he says, the drones can be made to work better, more sensitively, and more effectively alongside humans.

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Zhang goes on to describe a scenario in a future superstore where customers might be guided towards the products they’re looking for by autonomous blimp drones — or something like them.

“The blimp is a very good platform for it because of the long flight time and because of the safeness,” Zhang says. It’s true — it’s hard to imagine a slow-moving balloon inflicting many injuries in the event that someone does bump into it.

The use of a blimp platform, in place of quicker drone models like the quadcopter, could also represent a return to prominence for blimp technology, something that has gone unused for decades.

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The researchers say that the blimp platform allows the drone to do things like change direction quickly, another trait that will be useful in navigating the aisles of future superstores.

Photos via Georgia Tech, YouTube

Cory is an editorial intern for the culture section. He's from Long Island and, accordingly, knows that Billy Joel is better than Bruce Springsteen. He writes fiction in his spare time, and in college he taught himself to play bass because he wanted to be in a rock band but didn't want to work too hard.