‘Swarm technology’ could allow UAVs to work together

Autonomous aircraft could one day work together like swarming insects to complete missions, thanks to technology tested by Boeing last month.

The US-based aerospace company used swarm technology, developed by the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), to allow different types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to communicate and operate as a group.

The technology allowed two ScanEagle aircraft manufactured by Boeing subsidiary Insitu and one Procerus Unicorn from JHU/APL to complete a mission in eastern Oregon on 7–10 July, the company revealed last week.

The UAVs worked together to search a test area, mapping the terrain and creating their own flight path, while simultaneously sending information to teams on the ground. A broader demonstration is planned for the end of September.

‘This is a milestone in UAV flight,’ said Gabriel Santander, Boeing Advanced Autonomous Networks programme director and team leader.

‘The test team proved that these unmanned aircraft can collect and use data while communicating with each other to support a unified mission.

‘This swarm technology may one day be used for search-and-rescue missions or identifying enemy threats ahead of ground patrols.’

JHU/APL principal investigator Dave Scheidt said: ‘The decentralised autonomous vehicles we demonstrated show the potential for improved response time and reduced manning requirements when compared with current systems.’

The ScanEagle system also recently took part in the successful test of a Boeing-developed narrowband communications relay that was used to link handheld radios in the mountains of California.