The old saying, “birds of a feather, flock together,” can be applied to two small uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) flown in a NASA research experiment. The experiment uses principles derived from studies of fish and bird motions to simultaneously guide the vehicles around obstacles.

NASA recently completed flight tests over a “virtual” forest fire to evaluate new flight-control software to give UAVs the ability to autonomously react to obstacles, as they fly pre-programmed missions.

The tests were conducted over a remote area of Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., to investigate cooperative flight strategies for airborne monitoring and surveillance of natural disasters and for atmospheric sampling. Engineers and technicians from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., conducted the flight tests.

“We developed and flight tested several novel approaches for providing assistance to wildfire suppression crews using a team of two small UAVs,” said Ames’ John Melton, principal investigator for the Networked UAV Teaming Experiment. “The aircraft were flown using a combination of rules from nature and robotics to cooperatively transit and search a virtual forest fire,” he added.

The two autopilot-equipped, 12-foot wingspan APV-3 UAVs were built by RnR Products, Milpitas, Calif. They flew along computer-generated paths and demonstrated the ability to avoid obstacles in a cooperative and synchronized manner, all without the help of flight personnel.

The software also created waypoints on a rectangular grid of the search area, automatically developed individual flight plans and transmitted them to each vehicle. After passing their first few waypoints, one of the aircraft was commanded to begin orbiting over the virtual fire. The remaining search points were then transmitted to the second aircraft that incorporated these points into its flight plan and completed the mission.

“This technology may one day enable swarms of aircraft to move safely from one area to another as a flock or group,” Melton said. “A number of UAVs could be flown stacked in a vertical column with instruments to collect air samples on future science missions or help ground personnel monitor forest fires and other natural disasters,” he added.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is supporting a variety of technology development projects for remotely or autonomously controlled high-altitude, long-endurance UAV aircraft. Such aircraft have the potential to serve as platforms for a wide variety of Earth science, surveillance, and communications relay and disaster-mitigation missions. They are especially useful in circumstances where flying a manned aircraft is dangerous. The Networked UAV Teaming Experiment was sponsored by the Directorate’s Aeronautics Systems Analysis Project.

For more information about research conducted by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate on the Internet, visit: