The Making of A Drone Swarm: Everything You Need To Know


You’ve most likely seen drone swarms in action as they’ve been used at different events such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, and so on. In all these events, drone swarms provided colorful entertainment that mesmerized the crowd. If you are curious about drone swarms and want to know how they work, you’ve come to the right place. 

Drone swarms are produced by complex algorithms and by incorporating onboard cameras and proximity sensors on individual drones. It’s still a work in progress, but you can expect to get drones that work as a swarm out of the box sometime in the not-too-distant future. 

Drone swarms have been used across the world for entertainment. Perhaps you remember the hundreds of drones that were flown over the night sky at Disney World in 2016 that were choreographed to music sung during a show called “Starbright Holidays”. In 2017, drone swarms featured as part of Lady Gaga’s live performance in the Super Bowl. 

The Chinese, not to be left behind, used a drone swarm to celebrate their New Year not long ago. And Warner Bros recently used drone swarms to promote their  “Wonder Woman” movie. Drone shows have even been produced to applaud the efforts of health workers during the thick of the covid-19 pandemic.

In this article I’m going to discuss how drone swarms are produced, and hopefully give you a greater appreciation of the deployment of drone swarms at all of these events. 

How do Drone Swarms Work?

The concept of drone swarms was inspired by watching natural swarms of insects such as bees. Researchers and engineers have envisioned the future of replicating swarm behavior in the robotics world and they can see no limit to what can be achieved with this. But you see, replicating swarm behavior in robotics, and consequently, drones is very difficult. For one, a lot of processing power is required. Even the processing power required to make a dozen drones perform simple autonomous synchronized flight is enormous. Now think about the processing power that will be required for hundreds or thousands of drones. It’s a whole lot, right?

Thanks to advancements in technology, it’s possible to fly hundreds of drones autonomously. Otherwise, the drone shows we talked about at the beginning of this article couldn’t possibly have taken place. Those drone shows would have been impossible some years ago but the rapid advancements in technology have made it all possible. 

So drone swarms are made possible especially thanks to the incorporation of onboard cameras and proximity sensors on the drones. The proximity sensors are especially important for the drones to detect the presence of each other and avoid colliding. Imagine the drone swarms at the Super Bowl or Olympics colliding with each other and even falling out of the sky. The headline would be something like “Epic fail as drone swarms go wrong!”, haha. But thankfully proximity sensors enable the drones to maintain a safe distance from each other in flight. 

How do Drone Swarms Communicate?

While onboard cameras and proximity sensors are key to producing drone swarms, another major breakthrough towards having drones perform several actions by themselves is the decentralization of commands. Initial drone swarms used to have a drone in the swarm as some sort of “lead drone” which provides information/commands to all other drones in the swarm. Such commands include the entire area map or obstacles that the swarm should avoid. 

However, there’s a major problem with this centralized system of control. This is because a lot of information will be passed from the lead drone to the other drone in the swarm and delays usually occur due to bandwidth limits. Also, should the lead bot get damaged or experience any technical problem, the entire swarm will be affected as they are depending on the lead drone for information. 

The concept of decentralization of commands is to avoid the problems of the centralized system and make the drones behave like a true swarm. In the decentralization system, each individual drone communicates/shares data with its neighbor which are drones in its immediate surroundings. 

There is the advantage of passing data along the whole length of the swarm and this gives rise to a more dynamic operation. Liken this to yourself moving through a crowd. You aren’t going to focus on every single person in the crowd but instead, focus on the people closest to you so you can avoid bumping into them. 

Also, you won’t necessarily see everyone in your path or around you but as they approach you, your “proximity sensor”, which is your eyes, in this case, tell you when to move or turn so you avoid colliding with other people. A decentralized system of drones works in this way. 

Another way to look at how decentralized command of drones works is to liken them to say 15 first graders told to make a circle by standing apart from each other at an arm’s width. You can expect the first graders to just intuitively form the circle without really knowing where each person is going to be and each individual person will communicate with the person closest to them. 

Knowing the intended shape and communicating with neighbors is enough to form this shape and should anyone be added or subtracted, the circle will adjust without having to tell the kids the exact dimensions they need to compensate for.

Of course, this is a simple way of looking at how drones communicate. In reality, it’s a very complex process with the processors of the onboard computers of the drones functioning as their brains and performing hundreds of calculations per second. Limits in processing power is still one of the major hurdles that needs to be overcome especially when considering the number of drones that can be flown safely. But you can expect this to be solved in the near future as there seem to be exponential advancements in technology with each passing year. 

Intel’s Swarming Drones

Intel has been making waves in the past couple of years for their contribution to drone swarms. Their drone swarm efforts are so significant that we’d like to talk a bit about their swarming drones. Intel in collaboration with Ars Electronica Futurelab assembled a talented team of engineers in 2015. 

The team performed a significant feat by producing a swarm of 100 drones that were able to fly autonomously over an airfield in Germany. The drone show was made even more interesting by the addition of a fitting soundtrack by an orchestra. Flying 100 drones autonomously led to the team breaking the Guinness World Record. 

Intel and Ars Electronica Futurelab’s team performed their magic again by flying another 100 drones over the desert in Palm Springs, California. The aim of the team here was to prove the safety of their drone swarms to the FAA. It would later be in the harbor in Sydney, Australia that the first public display of swarm drones would occur. What’s a drone show without some music? The Sydney Youth Orchestra provided some music in the background as the drone show was going on. 

If you think flying 100 drones automatically was a feat, the Intel and Ars Electronica Futurelab’s combined team broke their own record as they flew 500 drones less than a year after flying 100. The difference in the efforts required to fly 100 and 500 drones is significant, and that the team achieved this less than a year after flying 100 is a big deal. 

Improved hardware and algorithms were key to increasing the number of drones to 500. Each drone in the swarm is made up of a quadcopter that Intel dubbed a “shooting star”. Each shooting star is made of soft materials and is weather-resistant. Intel also used caged propellers to ensure safety in public displays. 

How do I Make a Drone Swarm?

Unless you are an engineer or a researcher in robotics and other related fields, it’s beyond the reach of an everyday Joe to make your own drone swarm. The process of making drone swarms is complex and is far from being perfected after years of research and testing.

However, significant improvements are being made on drone swarms yearly and you can expect to get drones that work as a swarm out of the box some time in the future. 

Possibilities for Drone Swarms

The possibilities of drone swarms are practically endless. Below are areas where drone swarms may be applied. 

Diversity

You can expect to see a drone swarm consisting of different types and sizes of drones in the future. There is the possibility of more efficiency and effectiveness if the members of the drones have different types of drones with different capabilities. 

The drone swarms available today are made of small and identical drones. However, there has been success in creating drone swarms with different types of drones. And that’s why you should expect more complex multi-domain drones in the future. 

Customization

The main advantage of having customizable drone swarms is flexibility. Imagine how convenient it would be for commanders to simply add or remove drones as they so desire. Of course, for new drones to be added to an existing swarm, there will be a need for inter-drone communications as the swarm must be able to communicate with the new drone. Also, the existing drone swarm would need to have the ability to adapt to the removal and addition of drones. 

Customization would allow commanders, and consequently drone swarms to adapt to the needs of the swarm. Research is still ongoing on the customization of drones but the data obtained so far shows this concept may yet be possible. 

Hardening

There’d eventually be the need to produce drones that are resistant to jamming. Since drone swarms rely on communicating with one other to function, a way to counter a drone swarm would be jamming which would ensure that the swarm wouldn’t be able to function. 

As advances in drone swarms emerge, there’d be a need to harden swarms against different types of interferences. 

Image Source: Intel

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

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