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Swarms of flying robots inspired by insect behaviour could be used to establish emergency rescue networks following natural disasters, say Swiss researchers who plan to start testing their system from April.

In the aftermath of earthquakes and other disasters, when communications infrastructure is damaged or overloaded, the first thing rescue teams do is set up temporary radio or mobile communication networks to coordinate the search for survivors.

But these networks have limited data transmission capacity, take time and specialists to establish, and can suffer interference from existing commercial networks.

Now a team of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, has developed a quick way to establish a wireless network using 'swarming micro air vehicles' — flying robots.

"The main point is to provide high bandwidth digital communication, for instance to transmit high-resolution images, video streams and voice," Jean-Christophe Zufferey, the project leader, told SciDev.Net.

A fleet of vehicles would hover above a disaster zone with a module in the wing of each robot emitting a wireless signal to enable communication between rescuers.

Each vehicle is made from lightweight, flexible polypropylene plastic, weighs less than half a kilogram and has a wing span of 80 centimetres. A battery-powered motor enables each vehicle to fly for up to half an hour before visiting a recharging station.

The team is preparing a paper describing how it flew 10 robots — enough to establish and autonomously maintain a 1.5-kilometre communication line — to link up two rescuers on the ground.

To distribute the vehicles effectively above a designated zone, Zufferey's team took inspiration from the way ants leave chemical trails to guide colonies to sources of food. Some of the vehicles hover in small circles linked to the location of rescuers and the other vehicles navigate around these markers.

Renzo De Nardi, a robotics researcher at University College London in the United Kingdom, is impressed by the ease with which the system can deliver a high quality wireless signal, a feature that would be particularly useful in developing countries lacking fixed communication networks.

De Nardi warned, however, that the lightweight vehicles would likely be affected by wind and bad weather.

Julian De Hoog, head of the Robotic Search and Rescue project at the UK-based University of Oxford, described the aerial robot swarm as an "impressive achievement", but said the main challenge will be to boost vehicle durability while keeping them light enough to be safe if they crash.

He added that rescuers have many other factors competing for their attention so using the technology "would have to be very simple and straightforward".

The researchers will begin testing the technology in mock rescue contexts this spring. 

It will take up to three years to prove the robustness of the technology in real-life situations, according to Zufferey, although a simpler, single-robot system for crop and biodiversity monitoring has already been rolled out through a spin-off company, senseFly.

Meanwhile his team is also working to develop ground-based robots and flying vehicles that can enter buildings and scan for survivors.

See below for a video presentation by the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne:


See below for a video of the deployment of the flying robots in an experiment by the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne: