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Science
THE MATERIAL WORLD
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Thursday 16:30-17:00
Quentin Cooper reports on developments across the sciences. Each week scientists describe their work, conveying the excitement they feel for their research projects.
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Listen to 31 August
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QUENTIN COOPER
Quentin Cooper
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Thursday 31 August 2006
A NASA high-altitude unmanned aircraft (credit: NASA)
NASA is already testing high-altitude unmanned aircraft as platforms for communications and surveillance
(Credit: NASA)

Swarming Robots

If you've ever watched a nest of ants, a flock of starlings or a shoal of fish, you may have marvelled at the way they move together, almost as one. Now engineers are beginning to apply the same principles to groups of robots. Controlling so many free-moving individuals from a central computer would be incredibly complex and difficult. But it turns out to be easy if each ant, bird, fish or robot does its own processing, signals to its neighbours and follows a few simple rules.

A good example comes from one of the first applications outside the laboratory - airdrops of relief or military supplies. There may be dozens of loads that need to be parachuted down to a small target area. Space them too widely and they're impossible to retrieve on the ground. But drop them too close and, even with steerable parachutes, it's almost impossible to stop them crashing into one another in the air, tangling the parachutes with the loss of their loads. But add a simple microprocessor and a way for each to sense how close its neighbours are and they all come down safely in a tight group.

Animal behaviourist Dr Iain Couzin of Oxford and Princeton Universities has been studying swarming patterns in nature and working out theoretical models for the way they behave. Meanwhile, roboticist Professor Owen Holland at Essex University is applying the principles of swarming to airborne robots. In 'Gridswarm', he's developing model planes with an autopilot option that will enable them to fly in close formation without human intervention. And there's an indoor version called 'Ultraswarm', featuring a robot model helicopter. Fitted with a tiny computer and Bluetooth technology, it's the smallest free-flying web server in the world!

Stratospheric Broadband

Blue-sky-thinking researchers are looking to the stratosphere to meet the ever increasing demand for super-fast internet access. They are testing airships that fly 12 miles above the Earth and which beam back wireless broadband that's 200 times faster than a wired connection. These 'High Altitude Platforms' could provide us with floating communications hubs in the future, as well as offering disaster management or environmental monitoring to developing countries.

Quentin Cooper hears how they work and how they will be able to stay high in the sky for months on end from balloonist, adventurer and aeronautical engineer Per Lindstrand. And Project Scientist David Grace of the Capanina Project and the University of York describes how these solar-powered craft might beam high-speed data to us day and night.
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