Published: Sept. 6, 2017 By
Drones at Pawnee National Grassland

CU Boulder researchers have developed an advanced drone “swarming” technology that allows a single operator to control multiple unmanned aircraft for a variety of tasks, which could include searching for lost hikers or studying wildlife.

The CU Boulder team spent three weeks in August on the project at the Pawnee National Grassland near Greeley, Colorado, using the first-ever approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct flights with a single pilot managing multiple aircraft. The purpose of the technology is to locate moving radio beacons and follow them, said Associate Professor Eric Frew of the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences, who is leading the project.

“This new approval and new capability allows CU Boulder to continue its leading role in the development of autonomous unmanned aircraft systems,” said Frew. “Future drones will be able to fly autonomously, with minimal human oversight, by cooperating with other aircraft to perform a wide variety of missions safely and efficiently.”

CU Boulder researchers are working with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Boulder County Parks and Open Space and several other partners on the project, said Frew. The new technology could be used to help find beacon-toting hikers lost in the mountains or track imperiled wildlife.

As part of the project, CU Boulder obtained a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA that allows one pilot to fly up to 30 aircraft at one time. Typical approval by the FAA requires every drone to have its own pilot and one observer who is responsible for watching out for other air traffic, said Frew.

“The new COA allows for a ‘zone defense’ where the visual observers monitor the edge of the flight environment without having to monitor individual aircraft,” said Frew, who also directs CU Boulder’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles (RECUV). “This is an example of what we call ‘beyond-visual-line-of-sight,’ an important capability for the drone industry.”

Unlike previous examples of multiple drones flying together, such as Lady Gaga’s pre-taped Super Bowl show, the CU Boulder approval means it can be can be used repeatedly in the U.S. National Airspace System, said Frew.

The project is an international collaboration with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, a public research university located in Daejeon, South Korea.

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

The Korean team has been developing control algorithms to coordinate the aircraft, while the CU Boulder team is responsible for implementing the algorithms and flying the aircraft. As part of the project, CU Boulder graduate students are also creating new software that allows the aircraft to track the position of individual radio beacons.

The CU research team is part of the Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing (IRISS) initiative within the CU Boulder Grand Challenge. Launched in September 2014, the Grand Challenge is a response to President Obama’s nationwide call to action for companies, research universities, foundations and philanthropists to seek solutions to the pressing problems facing our world today.

IRISS includes a multi-disciplinary team that leads the design, development and deployment of novel remote and on-site sensing systems that use the mobility of aerospace systems to aid in data collection from the ground, atmosphere and space.