Penn drones navigate on their own, could save people from peril

In a University of Pennsylvania lab, engineers now have produced something else entirely: “swarms” of drones that can navigate on their own.

Picture a crew of firefighters outside a burning building, unable to tell whether any floors have collapsed. Or imagine a nuclear accident that is too dangerous for humans to examine up close. In the not-too-distant future, a group of these drones could handle the job instead, the Penn engineers say.

Such devices can work as a group to canvass a wide area, capturing images and other data that would help emergency responders plot the next step — from a safe distance — said team leader Vijay Kumar, who is also dean of Penn’s engineering school.

“The robots basically talk to each other,” he said. “They each know where they’re going. They can use high-level algorithms to distribute themselves in complex ways to solve tasks.”