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“Sniffy Bug’s” Drone Swarm Works Together to Detect and Map Gas Leaks

A team at Delft University has combined drones technolgy with advanced algorithms based on insect behavior to present a novel solution to a complex and time-sensitive problem. Their technolgy known as Sniffy Bug uses commercial quadcopters small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and weighing less than 50g (1.5 ounces). These drones are fitted with laser range sensors and a camera to avoid obstacles and navigate autonomously without the need for GPS. They also carry a minute but sensitive gas detector made specifically for the drones. This is the first time an autonomous swarm of this type has been demonstrated. Localizing a gas leak involves moving a sensor through the affected area and flying towards higher concentrations of gas. It can be a dangerous and time-consuming task, and industrial sites are already using methane-sniffing quadcopters that require a human controller and data analysis tools. A team of several drones working together would be more efficient, but it is difficult for drones of this size to operate in cluttered industrial settings or indoors, due the obstacles and unreliability of GPS. These drones navigate around a room or other space with a bio-inspired ‘bug algorithm’ that combines random movement with following the line of walls and other obstacles, and distancing themselves from other drones like a swarm. The drones share data on gas concentrations so they can converge on its source using the Sniffy Bug algorithm. This is highly efficient and able to work in real-time even on the limited processors on the drones. Aside from dangerous tasks like gas detection the technology may also be used for other applications such as rapid 3D mapping and inventory taking.