1on1-JimSoltiCC_featuredHave you ever been lost? Really lost? Driving through a large city, hiking in the mountains, spelunking through an underground cave complex?

If you’re under the age of 30, the answer might actually be ‘no.’ Given the proliferation of technology and ubiquity of GPS, our phones now act as personal travel agents capable of bringing us to desirable destinations before we even knew that was where we wanted to be.

The days of driving through unfamiliar streets with unwieldy, coffee-stained paper maps are gone. Today’s tech enables us to efficiently navigate the world around us with almost no pre-planning.

Well, most of the time.

It’s not perfect. I still get plenty lost, but overall I’m happy and I know things will improve with each product update.

As I contemplate such advances, I suspect that some time in the not-too-distant future, technology will not only aid individuals in finding their way, but also assist large groups in navigating complex environments — coordinating their actions, prioritizing effort and even warning of potential dangers.

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Take for example first responders, whose job it is to enter unfamiliar areas, under largely chaotic circumstances, where time constraints often determine life and death. Last month’s earthquake in Italy is a tragic but all-too-common case study. Imagine arriving on the scene with no idea of where to begin or what waits around the next corner. In such situations, how can we best use technology to help orient rescue teams and point them toward those in greatest need?

Obviously we’re already doing this to some extent through satellite imagery, as well as aircraft overflights and, more recently, drone feeds. The question now is, how do we supersize this? How do we add speed and precision at unprecedented response rates, and how do we do so cost effectively?

The answers may lie in the concept of a low-cost, disposable “cyclo-copter” swarm.

Imagine if you will, a massive swarm of small drones — tens of thousands operating in concert much like a colony of insects, each the size and weight of a hummingbird, costing under a dollar, able to lead responders to critical areas, search for signs of life, warn of structural instabilities, and prep emergency rooms for incoming injuries and blood types.

The general premise here is that, under some circumstances, large numbers of less sophisticated sensors may prove more effective than a handful of high-tech gadgets. As we say in the military, mass has a quality all its own, and the cyclo-copter may just be the answer.

Cyclo-copters have been around for decades but until recently have not really been practical. However, with advances in manufacturing along with improvements and miniaturization of a myriad of electronic components such as lightweight batteries, cameras, servos and microprocessors, cyclo-copters may now offer a quieter, more affordable option over competitive rotary and fixed-wing systems in terms of size, speed, range and maneuverability.

To this end, the Air Force Academy is working to advance and potentially commercialize our recently issued cyclo-copter patent (US 9,346,535 B1) toward the development of the kind of swarm capability described here. Several wicked-hard technical challenges remain, such as flight control, power, scale, manufacturing, sensor integration and autonomy — but with the right team, resources and vision, we just might be better prepared the next time Mother Nature strikes.

Dr. Jim Solti, a retired Air Force colonel, serves as chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force Academy. He can be reached at james.solti@usafa.edu.