MIT Develop Autonomous Drones That Can Both Drive & Fly

MIT Develop Autonomous Drones That Can Both Drive & Fly

Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a series of autonomous drones that that can fly and drive through a city-like setting with parking spots, no-fly zones, and landing pads.

The team noted that many animals in nature will transition between flight and walking when convenient and necessary, including birds and insects. They created eight quadcopter drones that can travel a distance of up to 252 meters when driving, or 90 meters of pure flight, negotiating between modes to maximize battery life.

"The ability to both fly and drive is useful in environments with a lot of barriers, since you can fly over ground obstacles and drive under overhead obstacles," says PhD student Brandon Araki, lead author on the paper. "Normal drones can't maneuver on the ground at all. A drone with wheels is much more mobile while having only a slight reduction in flying time."

After attaching the two small motors with wheels to the bottom of drones, the team reduced the drone’s maximum flying distance by 14 percent. However, since driving takes less battery life, the drones ended up being even more efficient.

Araki and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus developed the system, along with MIT undergraduate students John Strang, Sarah Pohorecky, and Celine Qiu, and Tobias Naegeli of ETH Zurich’s Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab. The team presented their system at IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Singapore earlier this month.

The drones were tested in a system that controlled the motions of eight drones flying and driving through a miniature town. Using pieces of felt for roads and avoiding cardboard box buildings, the quadcopters successfully navigated the fake town using "path-planning" algorithms that ensure the drones avoid colliding into each other or any other obstacles.

In their tests, researchers gave each of the drones a starting position and a goal position. The path planning system allowed the drones to communicate with each other and chose when to switch between flying and driving in order to optimize battery life, speed and efficiency.

The researchers were also able to restrict the drones from flying over certain areas, creating flight corridors that could become highways in the sky in the future.

Rus says that systems like theirs suggest that another approach to creating safe and effective flying cars is not to simply “put wings on cars,” but to build on years of research in adding driving capabilities to drones.

“As we begin to develop planning and control algorithms for flying cars, we are encouraged by the possibility of creating robots with these capabilities at small scale,” Rus says. “While there are obviously still big challenges to scaling up to vehicles that could actually transport humans, we are inspired by the potential of a future in which flying cars could offer us fast, traffic-free transportation.”

The drone market generated a revenue of $5.9 billion in 2016 and is anticipated to reach up to £21.3 billion by 2022, according to a new market research report. The factors behind this growth include a growing demand for drone-generated data in commercial applications, enhanced capabilities and rapid technological advancements.

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