Getty Images/Moment RF

Getty Images/Moment RF

In the basement of a Boston building, there’s a gymnasium where drones can play. Safety netting lines the walls, and the floor is covered with protective mats. Bright lights illuminate the room so a network of infrared cameras can capture the drones’ movements. One falls to the floor’s padded mats, bouncing along into a bumpy but safe landing. This is the dress rehearsal for the future of autonomous drones.

Over the past few years, many companies have proposed ambitious plans for unmanned aerial vehicles. Amazon, Google, Walmart and even Domino’s Pizza have all expressed interest in delivering purchases via carrier drone. Others imagine drones racing out alone to fight fires or manage crops.

But before we let drones loose, they need to learn how to drive on their own.

“Today, most things like this aren’t operating as autonomously as people tend to think they are,” says Kevin Leahy, at Boston University. “The more complicated, the more moving parts, the more vehicles you have, the harder it gets.”

The Boston lab aims to chip away at some of that difficulty. One recent experiment, led by Leahy, tasked a pair of UAVs with surveilling a particular square of the room. An algorithm controlled where they flew as they went about their work, tagging them out in turn so they could take a break at charging stations.

Drones alone

In other projects, squads of drones detect and fly around static obstacles in formation, or work together to build a picture of a patch of ground too large …

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