To infinity and beyond: Teaching drones to interact and work together

Drones are able to reach places that humans cannot and by teaching them how to work together it is hoped they can be used in crisis situations such as search and rescue missions.

One such robotics project at the University of Sheffield, UK, is trying to teaching quadcopters to learn from the environment they are in by 3D mapping what is in front of them.

The team from the university is also trying to enable the quadcopters to interact so it is possible they can work together.

Researchers are trying to programme the drones with intelligence to allow them to complete more complex tasks in environments that are unsafe for humans, such as areas affected by nuclear radiation or outer space.

The new programming developments in these robots enhance their learning and decision-making capabilities.

Professor Sandor Veres, who is leading the project, said: “We are used to the robots of science fiction films being able to act independently, recognise objects and individuals and make decisions.

“In the real world, however, although robots can be extremely intelligent individually, their ability to co-operate and interact with each other and with humans is still very limited.

“As we develop robots for use in space or to send into nuclear environments – places where humans cannot easily go – the goal will be for them to understand their surroundings and make decisions based on that understanding.”


A team from the university is trying to teach the drones to achieve this level of intelligence by using a computer concept called game theory.

In game theory, robots treat their tasks as a game, record and learn from the behaviour of the other robots they encounter, and draw from their experiences to try to ‘win’.

Though the theory is based around competition, it encourages compatibility and teamwork within a group of robots.  As they learn to predict each other’s next moves, they avoid collisions and increase efficiency.

The quadcopters collect data through attached forward facing cameras that allow them to create 3D maps of their surroundings, also sensing barometric and ultrasonic information to add to their understanding.

The improved processing of this data will allow them to work both with humans and other robots, a skill that will be crucial if the robot is to work in high-pressure situations.

While quadcopters are being developed for emergency aid and for use in dangerous environments, other flying robots are being honed for recreational purposes.


AirDog, an action sports drone, acts as a flying video crew. It follows its users through a tracking bracelet as they participate in sports like BMX, surfing and wake-boarding, taking high-quality videos and photographs.

The Airdog is manufactured by 3D printing, which allows for a lighter, less expensive design that can be sold as an accessible consumer product.

Essentially a quadcopter for the extreme sports market, the AirDog can record angles that a human could only achieve by filming from a helicopter.

Users program the desired distance, height and speed levels before they release the drone, and then it follows the user according to the desired specifications.

These different devices show just a small range of the possible applications for advanced flying robots.

Their ability to easily travel to places that humans cannot reach without the aid of a plane or helicopter makes them incredibly useful in all kinds of situations, from search-and-rescue missions to package deliveries. What other uses will we find for these sky-roaming drones?

Featured image courtesy of Kaometet, first body image courtesy of Steve Lodefink, second body image courtesy of Helico Aerospace Industries.

Winning by numbers: the role of data analysis in World Cup preparation


Almost 50 years have passed since England, the country who gave football to the world, last won the game’s most coveted prize: the World Cup.

In a bid to turn things around at this summer’s finals in Brazil, England’s manager Roy Hodgson has assembled the largest back room staff the country has ever known. It includes an array of nutritionists, physiotherapists and psychologists, and intriguingly, as many number crunchers as the playing squad has goalkeepers.

“England are taking three performance analysts to Brazil and you can bet the Germans and Dutch will be too,” says Paul Boanas, senior account manager at sports data expert Prozone. “In fact, I’d be shocked and a little horrified if all 32 teams at this summer’s World Cup were not using some form of data analysis to help improve their performance.”


Popular wisdom dictates that it was the Germans who first began using data to get an edge over their opponents. Prior to becoming head coach of his national team, Jurgen Klinsmann moved to California and became friends with Moneyball sports data pioneer Billy Beane.

On his ascension to the German football throne in 2004, Klinsmann wanted to explore the benefits of using data in football and enlisted the help of Professor Jurgen Buschmann from the Sports University in Cologne.

At Klinsmann’s behest, Buschmann assembled a group of students and colleagues to start putting Beane’s Moneyball ideas into practice for Germany. The result – a secretive group known as Team Cologne – began providing data analysis for the 2006 World Cup and has long since outlasted Klinsmann.

“Ahead of each tournament, the German Football Association’s coaching team receives a book’s worth of reading material,” says sports journalist Olivia Fritz. “It includes information about all the other teams. Later they receive another 40-page document and a DVD illustrating various tactics.”


Of course, not every country has the luxury of calling on a Team Cologne. However, between seven and 15 of this year’s World Cup finalists will be making use of the services provided by professional sports data companies such as Optaand Prozone.

With teams of analysts and cameras recording every pass, tackle and through ball in all the major leagues, Prozone and Opta are perfectly placed to help coaching staff whittle large pools of players down into the 23-man squads allowed at the finals.

“If you’ve got a lot of players to look at and they play in leagues around the world, you will scout some of them live but a lot will be done via video,” explains John Coulson, Optapro’s head of professional football. “We use data to index videos and make it easy for coaching staff to search not just for their players but also to narrow it down to things like if they’ve touched the ball in the final third or regained possession.

“The other main way data is used is through statistics on all sorts of things like passing accuracy and switching the play. When they’re planning their squads for the World Cup, coaching staff can use our database of metrics to compare their players and assess their opponents.”

This is an excerpt from the cover feature of Factor Magazine for iPad. Get the Factor app to read the full article and more World Cup-themed features.

Images courtesy of Adidas.