Robots of a feather flock together

Up to ten autonomous flying robots flock like birds in a real-sky experiment.

A flock of birds suddenly taking off and flying in formation, acting like one entity, is a stunning and complex communication effort. But can flying robots imitate birds when flying in a flocking formation? Today, a demonstration of EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems technology will be presented at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2011) by Sabine Hauert. She shows how up to ten fixed-wing robots can fly in flock-like formation patterns by communicating with their neighbors.

Hauert, who achieved this result within her PhD studies in Professor Dario Floreano’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, adapted an algorithm developed in 1986 by Craig Reynolds that simulates individual birds communicating with their flying neighbors in order to stay in a close formation. The robots, developed by EPFL spin-off senseFly, communicate by creating a one-to-one wireless network in the sky—each one can then tell the distance and direction of its closest neighbors, keeping the flock together without regard for all of the robots as a group.

“Flocking requires three things. You need to move with the same speed and direction as your neighbors, you need to avoid hitting them and you need to stay close,” Hauert, now a post-doctoral student at MIT recently told

Computer simulations at Floreano’s laboratory show that it is possible to flock up to 100 Micro-Air Vehicles or MAVs with this novel control algorithm. For the moment, Hauert’s achievement of 10 flocking MAVs in Lausanne’s blue sky, the largest grouping so far, once again shows the potential of taking principles from Nature to develop collaboration between “intelligent” robots.