Enrica Soria needed soft trees. The mathematical engineer and robotics PhD student from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, or EPFL, had already built a computer model to simulate the trajectories of five autonomous quadcopters flying through a dense forest without hitting anything. But an errant copter wouldn’t survive a tête-à-tête with a physical tree.
So Soria built a fake forest the size of a bedroom. Motion-capture cameras lined a rail hanging above the space to track the movement of the quadcopters. And for “trees,” Soria settled on a grid of eight green collapsible kids’ play tunnels from Ikea, made of a soft fabric. “Even if the drones crash into them,” Soria recalls thinking, “they won't break.”
She built the soft playground for the drones to safely test a new form of autonomous control: programming drones to adjust their trajectory based on how they expect their neighbors to move—rather than relying on an omniscient computer to direct them. An autonomous swarm is generally risky—the robots could smash into unforeseen obstacles, such as trees or curious birds, or each other. And a collision could have a ripple effect that derails the whole flock.