Researchers from the Netherlands, Spain and the United States have described the first autonomous drone squadron to detect gas leaks and other chemical threats to humans. Devices can compile room maps without GPS assistance.
Scientists noted that this study may be especially relevant for the military, who are increasingly interested in small drones – they work well together without much human control in difficult areas where there is no GPS. For example, they can be used for situations where chemical weapons pose a threat to large numbers of people.
The so-called nano-quadcopters, very small four-propeller drones, are easily carried and deployed by soldiers, and their small size makes them difficult for enemies to reach. But size also limits their options. They are too small to power the algorithms that work in autonomous cars. However, this is enough to draw up maps of the space around you.
“In nature, there are many examples of successful navigation and localization of odor sources under severe resource constraints. Fruit flies, with their tiny brains of about 100,000 neurons, accurately locate bananas in your kitchen in summer — it’s the same mechanism, ”the researchers noted.
The algorithm, which they call the Sniffy Bug, works by gradually defining the boundaries of the space where they operate. Drones can also detect each other in the air to avoid collisions and make a general map of the space. They can communicate with each other when one of them detects the source of a gas leak or other potential threat.
This algorithm can help rescuers or soldiers working underground or in dense urban areas where it is difficult for drones to obtain GPS signals. The researchers describe the system as “the first fully autonomous swarm of gas-seeking nano quadcopters.”