British researchers are turning to Linux and embedded processors to build a fleet of tiny, robotic helicopters capable of swarming like angry bees and evaluating their surroundings with a single hive mind.
The University of Essex's UltraSwarm project is an experiment in swarm intelligence and wireless cluster computing that might one day spawn military surveillance applications. In one scenario, a flock of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, with video cameras could take in a hostile landscape from a variety of angles and process the image locally, in the sky.
For their proof of concept, the researchers are using lightweight $69 Proxflyer Bladerunner toy helicopters equipped with gumstix processors -- tiny self-contained computers weighing 8 grams (0.28 ounces), but packing enough power to run the Linux 2.6 kernel and communicate over a built-in Bluetooth module.
The coaxial Bladerunner weighs only 50 grams (1.8 ounces) and is held aloft by two rotors, one atop the other, spinning in opposite directions to achieve a stable, insect-like flight. It's sold as a remote-control toy, but after adding the gumstix and a downward-facing video camera, the Essex University researchers have already turned one of the choppers into what they describe as the world's smallest flying web server.
If all goes according to plan, the helicopters will communicate with one another over Bluetooth, allowing them to move as one entity, and even to carry out sophisticated computation-heavy tasks using distributed computing techniques.
Read more about these robots here