University of Colorado engineers develop new UAS swarming technology



A team of University of Colorado (CU) engineers has developed a new UAS swarming technology that allows multiple UAS to be controlled at the same time by a single operator.

In collaboration with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the CU team tested this new technology at the Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County, Colorado for three weeks in August.

According to the, this project was granted the “first-ever approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to allow multiple aircraft to be manned by a single pilot.”

The leader of the project, Associate Professor Eric Frew of CU's Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences, says that the purpose of the technology is to “locate moving radio beacons and follow them.”

The CU team is made up of engineering undergraduates, graduates and professionals. Together, they have developed a brigade of UAS “intent upon hunting out beacon signals emitting from the grasslands.”

During their experiments, the CU team would deploy up to three high-tech UAS that were controlled by an operator on the ground.

According to Frew, in order for multiple UAS to be controlled simultaneously by a single operator, three components are needed: meshed networking, good interface and the autonomy of cooperative control.

Meshed networking gives UAS the capability to respond to each other while in the air, and send signals down to the ground station.

Good interface, in the form of displays for operators, is important on the ground because it allows operators to control their aircraft without any confusion.

Finally, the autonomy of cooperative control refers to the way that the UAS interact with each other in the air, as they coordinate their movement so that they can perform safely and efficiently.

The Korean team based in Daejon, South Korea helps make these difficult flights possible, while the CU team performs the actual flight in Colorado.

“Our teams have been working together over the past two and half years to develop the algorithms and software to make this system work,” says Steve Borenstein, lead engineer on the project and pilot for the CU team.

In the past, the FAA has always required every UAS to have its own pilot, along with one observer to watch for other air traffic as the UAS was being operated. The research by the CU team is only matched by a few examples of coordinated UAS flights—such as the UAS-controlled light show during the Super Bowl in February—but this is the first time that the FAA has granted permission for “recurring flights of this kind in the U.S. National Airspace System.”

Swarming UAS technology could be used in the future for a variety of tasks, such as search-and-rescue missions and wildlife surveying.

Working alongside Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Boulder County Parks and Open Space and other partners, the CU research team is looking to develop ways “in which beacon-toting backcountry enthusiasts and tagged wildlife can be tracked more efficiently.”

“Having multiple drones in the air, coordinating with one another to track the same target, will allow for multiple angles to triangulate exactly where the signal is coming from — whether it be a lost hiker or a tagged mountain lion,” Frew says.

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