Aerospace giant Boeing has announced that a new system designed to autonomously control and synchronise multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has completed successful test flights.
Developed and tested in Queensland, Australia, the system has an onboard command and control capability that allows it to perceive, process, and react in sync with other fixed-wing drones.
Australian investment already paying dividends
Boeing’s announcement comes less than six months after the company established a three-year Autonomous Systems Program in Queensland. The goal of the project is to work with local government and businesses to drive rapid innovation and develop next-generation autonomous capabilities.
In the early months of the programme, Boeing claims to have issued AU$2.3 million in contracts with 14 Queensland businesses. That partnership with small and medium-sized enterprises has “helped drive rapid design, development and testing of this autonomous technology,” said Boeing.
— Boeing Australia (@BoeingAustralia) August 17, 2018
Autonomous UAVs working together
And ultimately it’s that technology that will hit the headlines. Although Boeing offers scant detail in its official press release, the company has confirmed that its new technology has enabled five UAVs to safely complete programmed missions as a team without the need for input from a human pilot.
Flying multiple drones in sync has been done of course, most notably by chip giant Intel as part of a record-breaking series of drone light shows. Autonomous missions with pre-programmed flight paths are also widespread.
However, the majority of aviation authorities require line of sight to be maintained between pilot and vehicle, not to mention that operations be conducted on a ‘one pilot to one vehicle basis’. To date, this has restricted the exploration of commercial applications, limiting R&D to those with close relationships with regulatory bodies.
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The most interesting part of the news from Boeing is arguably the ability of its system to “process and react”, enabling multiple drones to work as part of a team (or flock). Although it’s hard to say what this means in practice without more detail from the developers, the phrase suggests a level of perception and dynamism that goes beyond the relatively passive systems in operation today.
Indeed, Boeing Phantom Works international director Steve Arnott has said, “What we’ve created here in Australia has the potential to transform the use of unmanned vehicles for civil, commercial, and defence applications – whether that be in the air, on the ground, or out at sea.
“This capability will be a huge driver of efficiency and productivity. By safely teaming unmanned systems with human-operated systems, we keep people away from dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks so they can focus on activities that machines can’t or shouldn’t do.”
The Boeing Australia team has confirmed that the next phase of testing will involve developing “more advanced behaviours” for UAVs. The company will then set its sights on the oceans, exploring the potential for autonomous, synchronised systems at sea.