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Swarm Intelligence of eVTOL Drones

Photo by Natalie Parham on Unsplash

It’s said, “There’s strength in numbers.” But can there be acumen and judgment too? Even if those numbers are comprised of individuals that, on their own, aren’t particularly intelligent?

In a word: Yes.

Using artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and nature (think bees, ants, or a flock of geese), scientists are teaching eVTOL drones to use their collective intelligence to do things that, individually, they are incapable of doing. The applications will be useful in everything from military operations to firefighting to disaster prevention.

Good Groupthink and Bad Groupthink

Once the stuff of children’s playful fancies, toy drones, such as DJI’s Phantom 4, today’s drones are not toys. A 2018 report (Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (CUAS) Capability for Battalion-and-Below Operations) from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine lays out the good news and the bad news: A) eVTOL drones are good and B) eVTOL drones are bad.

As surely as these intelligent robots can be used offensively against an enemy, they are also a threat to those same, often well-intentioned, combatants.

A single incoming missile can, at least theoretically, be shot down before hitting its target. A swarm of 1,000 drones programmed with a common goal is very difficult to defend against. Yet, by applying AI to a drone swarm, they might be used to suppress wildfires, survey thousands of acres of crops, stack sandbags ahead of a coastal storm, create a barrier to contain a toxic chemical spill, or deliver critical medicine or medical supplies to remote areas, as they were in Rwanda and Ghana.

Droning On

In Colorado and Nebraska, drones with wingspans as large as 6-feet across (about 2 meters), sometimes in swarms, were spotted operating at night.

Operating drones in the U.S. requires advance approval in the form of a waiver from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, specifically, its Part 107 regulation. Flying at night requires Part 107.29 to be waived, flying beyond its operator’s line of sight requires a waiver of FAA Part 107.31, and to fly multiple drones requires Part 107.35 be waived. Although companies, such as Google (part of parent company, Alphabet), have received waivers, the company denied it was operating the drones. So did Zipline, the company delivering medical supplies in Africa. The only place where drones have received a waiver to operate in the U.S. was Christiansburg, Virginia, for a partnership between FedEx and Walgreen’s Pharmacy.

Although the U.S. Military denied it is responsible for operating the drones or drone swarms, by process of elimination, it is at least plausible that it did (as is its denial). Whether for military or civilian use, with good or bad intentions, individually or collectively, eVTOL drones are coming. Time will tell how that works out for us mere humans.

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Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.