In the spring of 2011, several fires scourged the dune area in the province Noord-Holland. Such large fires in natural reserves are difficult to locate and monitor. Even when witnesses report smoke, the fire department has a difficult time accessing the area and finding the actual site. Personnel has to move into the area, which can be dangerous because of toxic smoke and fast-moving fire.
FireSwarm proposed to use robots to take over the dangerous task of detecting and monitoring large fires. FireSwarm developed and tested swarms of small, autonomous flying robots: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAV’s. UAV’s are already being used in several comparable application areas, but these projects use large, expensive drones. FireSwarm used smaller, cheaper drones, which has several advantages.
A large swarm of small drones can cover much more ground than a single UAV, and individual drones are expendable, both technically and financially. A swarm is also highly scalable: if the area to be covered is bigger, you can simply launch more drones. Finally, small drones are safer; they cause less harm if they crash.
Almende was involved in the development of the control software which enabled the UAVs to function as a swarm, respond to each other's measurements and coordinate their actions to maximize effectiveness. Furthermore, Almende offered technical support during the test flights performed in the field as part of the demonstration activities done in the project.
The project contributed to our knowledge of swarm behaviour and swarm mechanics when applied to the concrete use case of UAVs, which presented a number of interesting challenges. Since individual UAVs are considered expendable due to the potentially hazardous environmental conditions, the swarm as a whole must be robust and distribute responsibilities among all actors, so there is no single-point-of-failure. This enabled us to develop robust communication and control algorithms.