Multiple UAVs perform autonomous formation flight (w/ Video)

Aug 08, 2014 by Jason Maderer
The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) uses quarter-scale Piper Cub aircraft for research on collaboration between unmanned aerial vehicles. Shown with the aircraft are (l-r) Lora Weiss, Gary Gray, Don Davis and Kyle Carnahan. Credit: Gary Meek

(Phys.org) —These days, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) typically fly alone with a team of ground operators controlling their activities through teleoperation or waypoint-based routing. But one aircraft can only carry so many sensors, limiting its capabilities. That's one reason why a fleet of autonomous aircraft can be better than one flying alone.

In one of the first autonomous demonstrations, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has successfully commanded three fully autonomous, collaborating UAVs. The machines flew in close formation at the same altitude, separated by approximately 50 meters as they executed figure-eight patterns. The research is part of GTRI's efforts to improve the capabilities for collaborating as teams, thereby reducing the load on human operators.

"For autonomous systems to scale effectively, future systems will need the ability to perform with a higher level of autonomy," said GTRI Chief Scientist Lora Weiss, who leads GTRI's UAV research. "Human operators must be able to provide high-level task descriptions, allowing the systems to figure out for themselves how to dynamically form teams and autonomously collaborate to complete tasks."

GTRI operated the three UAVs over the skies of Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia. A single plane was initially designated as the leader and commanded to fly autonomous orbits. The two "follower" UAVs joined the orbits, flying with rotational offsets of 15 and 30 degrees, respectively, from the leader.

"There are logistical challenges with quickly getting multiple planes in the air," said Charles Pippin, a GTRI senior research scientist who led development of the autonomy algorithms.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The Georgia Tech Research Institute is conducting research to improve the capabilities of autonomous systems collaborating as teams, thereby reducing the load on human operators.

The lead UAV shared its current position with the follower UAVs several times per second, allowing the followers to calculate the control changes necessary to reach the desired position. The followers also used the leader's information to send commands to their on-board autopilots, which adjusted the controls and throttle for each . GTRI's autonomous algorithms and applications are general enough that they can be used with different UAVs and autopilot systems.

The aircraft in the Fort Benning demonstration were quarter-scale Piper Cub airframes with a wingspan of approximately eight feet. They are able to carry a mission computer, autopilot system, and sensor payloads.

Autonomous systems working in teams have numerous future applications designed to improve lives and reduce costs. For example, multiple UAVs could provide several different camera angles while searching for a missing person. While surveying hurricanes, one plane could carry a sensor to check wind speed in one area while another UAV measures energy in another. The same is true for wildfires. One vehicle could determine the size of the blaze while another uses different sensors to measure the heat or direction of the inferno.

"Multiple planes working together also provides flexibility if one aircraft fails or is diverted somewhere else during a mission," explained Pippin.

As the use of unmanned systems becomes more prevalent, increasing levels of autonomy will become necessary to improve the safety, robustness, and quality of these systems. GTRI's unmanned systems research has the potential to positively impact many different industries, including crop inspection and spraying, delivery of goods, wildlife management, and utility inspection

"GTRI's ongoing research in these areas will make UAVs safer, and cheaper to operate," said Weiss.

GTRI currently conducts collaborative UAV research using a collection of different airframes. GTRI has modified these aircraft in different ways, including equipping them with RF modems and cameras. The aircraft can also be equipped with pods to carry customer-specific payloads. The aircraft have been invaluable for research on collaborative control of multiple UAVs and have enabled development of algorithms to support more sophisticated collaborative missions.

The recent UAV tests follow a 2010 GTRI demonstration at Fort Benning that featured two small-scale aircraft and a full-size self-driving automobile completing a mission without human interaction. The two projects are part of a Memorandum of Understanding GTRI has with the Army post to conduct tests of advanced technologies.

Explore further: Update to Phantom 2 Vision and Vision+ UAVs allows for autonomous flights

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New enclosure ensures SMAP UAV research keeps on flying

Aug 07, 2014

A new enclosure for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) testing gives the Systems Management and Production (SMAP) Center at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) new capabilities to test software and hardware ...

Recommended for you

Desktop device to make key gun part goes on sale in US

2 hours ago

The creator of the world's first 3D plastic handgun unveiled Wednesday his latest invention: a pre-programmed milling machine that enables anyone to easily make the core component of a semi-automatic rifle.

Minimally invasive surgery with hydraulic assistance

8 hours ago

Endoscopic surgery requires great manual dexterity on the part of the operating surgeon. Future endoscopic instruments equipped with a hydraulic control system will provide added support during minimally ...

Analyzing gold and steel – rapidly and precisely

10 hours ago

Optical emission spectrometers are widely used in the steel industry but the instruments currently employed are relatively large and bulky. A novel sensor makes it possible to significantly reduce their size ...

More efficient transformer materials

10 hours ago

Almost every electronic device contains a transformer. An important material used in their construction is electrical steel. Researchers have found a way to improve the performance of electrical steel and ...

Sensor network tracks down illegal bomb-making

11 hours ago

Terrorists can manufacture bombs with relative ease, few aids and easily accessible materials such as synthetic fertilizer. Not always do security forces succeed in preventing the attacks and tracking down ...

Miniature camera may reduce accidents

11 hours ago

Measuring only a few cubic millimeters, a new type of camera module might soon be integrated into future driver assistance systems to help car drivers facing critical situations. The little gadget can be ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tadchem
5 / 5 (1) Aug 08, 2014
The GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania did this over 2 years ago. http://www.youtub...MGV5vtd4
The formation flying starts about 30 seconds in...