MIT’s entry in Dubai’s ‘Drones For Good’ contest is a drone swarm that can land on water

The Waterfly drones represent a future where swarms of robots can fly together, land in water, sample it to detect algae or contaminants, and take off once again. (Image: Senseable City Labs)
The Waterfly drones represent a future where swarms of robots can fly together, land in water, sample it to detect algae or contaminants, and take off once again. (Image: Senseable City Labs)

When a team from MIT’s Senseable City Lab flew to Dubai this weekend to participate in Drones for Good, a contest hosted by the UAE government, they brought a swarm of five amphibious drones in tow.

Their project, dubbed “Waterfly,” mimics a swarm of dragonflies. Each Frisbee-like device is just over four pounds, and together, they can communicate with each other, fly collaboratively, and land on bodies of water to collect samples for environmental testing. The team will have them on display at the contest semifinals this week at Dubai’s Internet City.

“When you have a swarm they can be much more efficient,” said Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, which designed the distinctive crafts. If the goal is to photograph a region, or collect multiple water samples, five drones could collect a more comprehensive sample, faster.

In a region where the associations with the word “drone” carries a more threatening meaning—think large Predators with missiles rather than more innocuous quadcopters—the Emiratis have taken a strikingly optimistic stance about the potential benefits of small autonomous crafts.

They’ve proposed to equip the police crew with camera-carrying drones, and using the crafts for delivering government mail. The contest is an extension of this campaign.

In its quest for the $1 million dollar prize, Waterfly will be vying with projects like Flyability, which is a Swiss-made drone housed in a spherical cage that protects it from collisions, and a team from New Zealand that’ll demonstrate how drones can help Coast Guards better do their job.

The 'Gimball' drone can bounce off obstacles and continue flying unharmed. (Photo: Flyability) The ‘Gimball’ drone, another entry in the Drones for Good challenge, can bounce off obstacles and continue flying unharmed. (Photo: Flyability)

The MIT design is novel one; the drone’s light, carbon fiber skeleton and shape mean the crafts can land on water and then take off again. Chris Green, one of the architects behind the water sampling drone, was also the builder of “Skycall” concept. In a video published last year, he demonstrated how a drone could potentially be summoned via a smartphone app, and then act as a guide through MIT’s campus.

But this contender in the Dubai contest is just the latest in a groundswell of research that is attempting to mimic the natural mathematics of bird and insect swarms, where many individual creatures track a seemingly coordinated yet chaotic path.

The Army’s Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology alliance is one example of military research that is funding very tiny, flying swarms. At Vijay Kumar’s GRASP lab at University of Pennsylvania, paperweight-sized quadcopters are being trained to work together. (Kumar is also a keynote speaker at the Drones for Good event.)

Photo: Wendy MaedaMichael Rubenstein (pictured) and Radhika Nagpal’s team at Harvard University is among the groups breaking new ground in swarm robotics research. Photo: Wendy Maeda

Radhika Nagpal’s swarm lab at Harvard has perhaps the largest army of such simple, hive-minded robots. These penny-sized “Kilobots” can’t fly—they crawl along on three legs. But together, a group of a little more than 1,000 of them can form specific shapes and patterns, the researchers demonstrated last year.

Scientists and conservation groups are already using drones to photograph and protect wildlife. Just about a year ago, San Francisco startup Airware announced a partnership with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to pilot-test its drone software to help monitor endangered species. Carlo Ratti’s idea is that five eyes in the sky could be five times as effective as just one — only his birds could make a water stop to bring back evidence.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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