CU Boulder researchers develop tech for flying multiple drones with one pilot

BOULDER — Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed an advanced drone technology that allows an operator to control multiple unmanned aircraft.

The “swarming” technology lets one person control multiple drones for a variety of tasks, such as for research or search-and-rescue.

In August, researchers spent three weeks working on the technology at the Pawnee National Grassland near Greeley. It was the first-ever approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct flights with one pilot managing multiple aircraft, according to a news release. The technology allows the drones to locate moving radio beacons and follow them.

CU Boulder testing out its new drone technology at Pawnee Grassland.

“This new approval and new capability allows CU Boulder to continue its leading role in the development of autonomous unmanned aircraft systems,” said Associate Professor Eric Frew, who is leading the project, in a prepared statement. “Future drones will be able to fly autonomously, with minimal human oversight, by cooperating with other aircraft to perform a wide variety of missions safely and efficiently.”

Researchers from the university are working with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, Boulder County Parks and Open Space and other partners on the project, which could be used to help lost hikers who have beacons to be located. The project is also an international collaboration with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea. The Korean team has been developing the algorithms to coordinate the aircraft while the CU Boulder team has been implementing the algorithms and doing the flying.

For the project, CU Boulder got a certificate of authorization, or COA, from the FAA that allows one pilot to fly up to 30 aircraft at one time, as opposed to typical guidelines that require every drone to have its own pilot. The approval means it can be used repeatedly in the U.S. National Airspace System.

“The new COA allows for a ‘zone defense’ where the visual observers monitor the edge of the flight environment without having to monitor individual aircraft,” Frew said. “This is an example of what we call ‘beyond-visual-line-of-sight,’ an important capability for the drone industry.”