These drone swarms smell trouble and could save lives

Unfortunately, when we report on drone swarms, it’s typically about a new way to kill or destroy. But here’s a drone swarm designed to save lives.

The Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands calls this new type of swarm Sniffy Bug. The drones are trained to search for chemical leaks in cluttered environments, using algorithms inspired by insect behavior.

Basically what the drones do is move a sensor through a suspect area and search for the highest concentrations of gas. When the drones gather in one particular spot, the leak has likely been found. This kind of work can be dangerous and time-consuming for humans. But Sniffy Bug appears to work quite quickly.

Sniffy Bug uses the tiny Crazyflie quadcopters equipped with laser range sensors and a camera to avoid obstacles. No need for GPS since they’re typically deployed inside. And of course, they also carry a sensitive gas detector.

Drone swarm designed to save lives

The drones navigate using an algorithm inspired by swarming insects. They basically combine random movement with wall and obstacle avoidance. They also know how to avoid each other. They share data on gas concentrations and quickly converge on the source. You can see them at work here:

In this case, the swarm seeks out isopropyl alcohol vapor in a 10-meter-square environment. In four different configurations, the swarm rapidly found the source of the alcohol in 11 out of 12 tests.

Gas leaks aren’t the only application. Forbes reports that the developers want others to explore the capabilities of these low-cost multicopter swarms. They might be invaluable in tracking down sources of pollution. They could track fires in underground caves or storage tanks.

It’s an inspired new use for drones that’s nothing to sniff at.

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