Research & Science USC
April 4, 2017

Rarely a day goes by without tales of another drone advancement, usually for deliveries to a remote area, something Amazon and other companies are pursuing.

It’s not here yet, but another futuristic use of drones is having large groups of quadcopters in packs, working together like bees, to assist in search and rescue, fire safety, coastal surveillance and other useful actions.

Researchers at the University of Southern California are hard at work at just that, looking to spend the next five years perfecting synchronized drones for prime time.

The advantage of multiple drones working together is that “if one fails, other ones can fulfill the gap,” says USC computer science professor Nora Ayanian. “With teams, you can be everywhere at once, not confined to one location.”

We watched as Ayanian and her team demonstrated for us, having the computer start the process, and then the swarm of drones lifted off the floor, through the windows and back again. This they have down now; it’s what happens when they go outside into the real world that the researchers need to perfect.

Many of us watched as 300 synchronized drones flew together at the recent Super Bowl, in a demo performed by chip maker Intel, which has been showing off the technology at Disney World, as well.

Like Intel, Ayanian’s drones are also operated by computer and cameras, but they are tiny—like flying insects with built-in cameras. Her research is all indoors, in a controlled environment, where the “robots” as she calls them, are trained to fly in and out of simulated windows, and to spell the letters U-S-C.

Synchronized drones at Disney and sporting events “are shows,” says Wolfgang Hoenig, a USC PhD candidate working on the project. “We are using this for real applications.”

When in shows, computers and manual controls are used to fly the drones, but Hoenig notes “we’re fully automated. We tell the drones where to start, and what the environment looks like, and they go from there.”

USC isn’t alone in its research. The military is developing using mass drones for defense, as a “collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature,” said William Roper, the director of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office, in a statement.

Romeo Durscher, the director of education for consumer drone company DJI, says the idea of drones working in unison for search and rescues “will be tremendously helpful.”

He regularly works with crews on missions to find lost people, usually with one drone in the sky.

Increasingly first responders are using drones in places people can’t go. In the recent Oakland “Ghostship” warehouse fire in December, for instance, investigators launched a drone with thermal imaging capability to help officials see if there were any survivors.

“What we have now is way better than what we had two years ago, but it’s still a lot of manual input,” says Durscher. “We know one single drone can reduce the time it takes to find someone—imagine if we had many drones working together and sharing information, how much faster it would be.”