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The multiple-rotor radio-controlled aircraft provide a simple and cheap way to test out strategies before they are scaled-up for real world use.
"We're focusing on persistent surveillance," says project leader Jonathan How at MIT in the US. "This would be useful for, say, convoy protection." His team is working in collaboration with Phantom Works, the research and development arm of Boeing.
How says a swarm of surveillance UAVs could keep watch over a convoy, taking turns to land on one of the trucks for refuelling. They would work together to ensure complete surveillance of the area around the convoy.
In another experiment, each UAV was programmed to automatically land on a stationary recharging station when running low on battery power. Another video shows two aircraft working together to track a moving ground vehicle. The UAVs automatically take turns tracking the target at low altitude.
The central computer uses positioning information to decide on objectives for each of the aircraft. "This is a kind of rapid prototyping system for UAV cooperation experiments," How explains. "We can plan a mission in the morning and do it in the afternoon." By contrast, an outdoors experiment involving large UAVs would take days or weeks to plan, he says.
New Scientist Tech