Most drones work alone, for now. They hover solo, high above the terrain, wirelessly tethered to their human operators.
But the drones of the future will operate more autonomously — and chances are, they will not operate alone. Instead, they'll swarm, responding to each other and the environment like a robotic murmuration. One classified project at the Naval Postgraduate College aims to have "live-fly experiments involving 50 versus 50 UAVs" in 2015. And as in the air, so it will go in the water, too.
Yesterday, researchers at the University of Ganz Artificial Life Laboratory in Austria debuted a video of their CoCoRo autonomous underwater vehicle swarm. They call it the world's largest swarm of underwater drones.
The project, led by Thomas Schmickl, is an attempt to build swimming bots that can accomplish tasks together. Right now, the CoCoRo swarm is composed of 41 bots. There are the fish-like Jeff vehicles, the saucer-y Lily drones, and their boat-like base-station.
The researchers have an ambitious goal. They want to understand whether a network of bots can show swarm cognition—and they are comparing the intelligence of their swarm to biological organisms. "By performing sophisticated experiments (meta-cognition) we will compare our results to nature, evaluate our scientific progress and – potentially – cast new light on existing interpretations in the fields of biology, theology, meta-cognition, psychology, and philosophy," they write.
While the CoCoRo project imagines civilian scenarios, the military applications of work like this is already clear. The Navy has already begun swarm experiments with unmanned and largely autonomous drone boats. A small intelligence unit called the Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensings or CARACaS can be installed in boats, outfitting them with enough intelligence to operate autonomously and in concert with other similarly equipped bots.