Boeing is now testing interconnected drones that take the human out of the loop and work together on a network. The aerospace company opened the Collaborative Autonomous Systems Laboratory, or CASL, last week and already have a colloquial name for it: “The Castle.”
The 8,100-square-foot facility is a playground for scientists, engineers and tech experts to toy with different possibilities and develop even more capabilities, including further autonomy, but especially collaboration between systems, otherwise known as swarm technology.
Boeing sees autonomy as a huge opportunity for technological progress. Operating without direct human guidance will be “a key element of the vast majority of Boeing products going forward,” said Charles Toups, vice president for research and technology, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Boeing displayed some of their synced technology at the ribbon-cutting of “The Castle” last week. The inherent cooperation from the interconnected systems allows once difficult tasks to be completed easily through aggregation. Harvard University, in 2014, tested one thousand collaborative robots that were able to instinctively assemble in different shapes and maneuver collectively, like a school of minnows in the sea.
Loren Thompson, defense analyst and chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute in Virginia, sees autonomous tech as a smart venture. “There will be some battles where there are no human casualties, because there are no humans involved,” he said.
That prospect has already become a reality. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) tested swarm “drone” boats in 2014 that can automatically surround a threatening vessel.
The Navy is launching its first at-sea “air show” this month to exhibit such technological capacity, in which drones automatically configure in a swarming formation to accost a target, according to Military.com.
While there are operators to oversee the functionality of the swarming drones, “the reality is, [the drones are] flying themselves, they’re performing their mission and the operator’s supervisory. So it tremendously reduces the workload to be able to control large numbers of UAVs,” Lee Mastroianni, ONR’s program manager for Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) program, explained.
Mastroianni said the military definitely has further plans to continue the development of swarming drones to conduct more complex exercises in all aspects of battle. “As we come to a close on this chapter, we’ll be exploring all those different things. I expect to be busy for quite a few years,” he said.
Boeing’s move to create a facility with the sole purpose of developing autonomous vehicle technology, including swarm robotics, is a clear sign that they want a bigger share of the drone market (both public and private), which has been growing steadily and will continue to do so.
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