Individually, insects have proven a deep well of inspiration for robotics engineers looking to mimic designs refined over millions of years of evolution. Now Boeing has demonstrated swarm technology for reconnaissance missions using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that is similar to the way insects communicate and work together as an intelligent group. Potential uses for the technology include search-and-rescue missions and identifying enemy threats ahead of ground patrols.

In flight tests over the rugged terrain of eastern Oregon last month, different types of UAVs worked together to search the test area by autonomously generating waypoints and mapping the terrain, while simultaneously sending information to teams on the ground. The mission used two Insitu-manufactured ScanEagles and one Procerus Unicorn from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), which communicated using a Mobile Ad Hoc Network and swarm technology developed by JHU/APL.

"This is a milestone in UAV flight," said Gabriel Santander, Boeing Advanced Autonomous Networks program director and team leader. "The test team proved that these unmanned aircraft can collect and use data while communicating with each other to support a unified mission."

JHU/APL principal investigator Dave Scheidt says that the decentralized swarm technology demonstrated in the flight tests has the potential to improve response times while reducing manning requirements when compared to current systems. A broader demonstration of the swarm technology is planned for next month.

This isn't the first time we've seen researchers turn to insects to develop flight strategies for swarms of aerial vehicles. The Swarming Micro Air Vehicle Network (SMAVNET) Project used the pheromone paths laid down by army ants help plot the most economical course for MAVs that would be deployed in disaster areas to quickly create communication networks for rescuers.