Science and Technology Spotlight: Drone Swarm Technologies
Why is this important?
Drone swarm technologies allow groups of drones to coordinate with each other, often without direct human control. Potential civilian applications include fighting wildfires and finding missing people. But advances in computing and communications are needed to realize these applications, and the technology may raise safety, cybersecurity, and privacy concerns.
What is this? Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that range in size from one inch to a wingspan of more than 130 feet. Drone swarm technologies coordinate as few as three and as many as thousands of drones to perform missions collaboratively with limited need for human attention and control. For example, a drone swarm could help control wildfires, assess damage, find access points, and extinguish the fire by raining down firefighting fluids on it — all with minimal human guidance. Drone swarms may be more efficient and powerful for certain applications than individual drones because swarms can complete a variety of tasks in parallel without human supervision. They can continue to operate if individual drones become inoperable.
How it works? Drone swarms combine advanced computer algorithms with local sensing and communications technologies to synchronize multiple drones to achieve a target.
Drone swarms can use different methods of command and control, including pre-programmed missions with pre-determined flight paths, centralized control by a ground station or a single control drone, or distributed control where drones communicate and cooperate based on shared information. More advanced control methods include swarm intelligence, inspired by the collective behaviors of insect colonies and bird flocks, as well as artificial intelligence techniques to teach drone swarms how to respond to new or unexpected situations.
Figure 1. Methods of driving and controlling a drone swarm
How mature is it? Drone swarm technologies and algorithms have become more mature in recent years. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have improved decision making and obstacle avoidance. High-speed communications technologies such as 5G and 6G have improved real-time data exchange between devices. Other developments include energy-efficient components, such as lighter materials and energy-efficient motors, as well as advanced sensor technologies for mapping the environment. In addition, there are now high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors for surveillance, reconnaissance, and search and rescue.
Despite these advances, the use of drone swarms remains limited due to a number of challenges. Most current drone swarm applications are still relatively simple. For example, aerial light shows are performed with pre-planned movements. Tasks such as tracking and locating multiple drones in uncontrolled environments still pose a significant challenge to drone swarm technologies. Weather conditions in emergency management situations such as hurricanes or wildfires can exacerbate these challenges.
Current and potential civilian applications for drone swarm technologies include:
- agriculture: Drone swarm technologies can plant seeds, identify disease outbreaks by monitoring large areas, and spread treatments such as fertilizer on crops.
- Emergency management: Responders can use drone swarms to find missing people and provide emergency care and supplies during natural disasters.
Drone swarms can also help firefighters track and control the spread of wildfires and collect information about damage, access points, and more.
- entertainment: The event organizers have used Drone swarms for entertainment as an alternative to fireworks. Doing so can mitigate debris, pollution, fires, and disturbances to animals and humans.
Figure 2. Current and potential civilian applications for drone swarms
- Safety and security: Drone swarms can operate with minimal human intervention, but human intervention with control systems may be necessary for sensitive missions, such as those that could put humans at risk. Federal law prohibits operating drone swarms in restricted areas or to conduct illegal or nefarious activities such as espionage, cyberattacks, or deployment of improvised explosive devices. Operators must obtain a waiver to operate a drone swarm, as current regulations do not allow anyone to operate more than one drone at a time.
- Privacy and cyber security: Drone swarms collect information about their surroundings, so protocols must be in place to protect against the collection and storage of certain information, such as photographs, videos, or audio recordings of individuals. Cybersecurity measures can help ensure drones are not hijacked, hacked by bad actors, and used for malicious purposes.
- Technical developments: Some applications will require miniaturization of hardware, such as sensors, as well as improved computing power. Advances in algorithms can better simulate swarm behavior and improve communication, communication and decision-making between drones.
Policy context and questions
- What measures can be taken to ensure drone swarm technologies operate safely?
- What threats might arise from the use of drone swarm technologies for illegal activities, and how can they be mitigated?
- What standards can be used or developed to ensure (1) the privacy of information that can be collected by drones and (2) appropriate cybersecurity safeguards?
- How can research initiatives address key technical challenges and deliver high-value, safe and ethical applications for drone swarms?
For more information, contact Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or Bothwellb@gao.gov.