Flying robots swarm to the task of disaster rescue

Establishing emergency communication networks in disaster-hit areas can often take time, hampering rescue teams in their efforts to save lives.

But a new system of autonomous flying robots being developed at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) could make establishing emergency wireless networks faster, more reliable and more affordable.

The Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network (SMAVNET) research project at EPFL's Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) was set up to study swarm intelligence -- the science of artificially mimicking the efficient collective behaviors of animal or insect colonies. The aim is to create a system which could be deployed in disaster scenarios says Jean-Christophe Zufferey, a research scientist at LIS.

Made from lightweight plastic foam with a lithium battery-powered electric motor at the rear, these Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are launched a bit like you would a Frisbee.

Once airborne, an autopilot controls altitude, air speed and turn rate, while the MAVs avoid mid-air collisions by communicating with one another via optical flow sensors.

These are mounted at the front of each MAV, enabling it to detect the distance between objects and change direction if they get too close to each another.

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