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MIT Has the Flying/Driving Drones You’re Looking For

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    Orville and Wilbur Wright may have paved the way for aviation. But a team of researchers at MIT are adding a new twist on human-invented flight.

    Students of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are developing robots that can maneuver on land and in the sky.

    In a new paper presented in Singapore earlier this month, the group outlines a system of eight quadcopter drones that fly and drive through a “city” with terrestrial and atmospheric obstacles.

    “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,” Ph.D. student Brandon Araki, lead author on the paper, said in a statement. “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.”

    This project builds on Araki’s previous work developing a “flying monkey” robot, which crawls, grasps, and flies—but can not travel autonomously.

    Enter independent drones. By integrating “path-planning” algorithms (ensuring the unmanned aerial vehicles don’t crash into each other) and installing motors with wheels, the robots were able to fly nearly 100 yards and drive 275 yards on their own, before the batteries ran out.

    Developed by Araki and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, the program was helped along by MIT undergrads John Strang, Sarah Pohorecky, and Celine Qiu, as well as Tobias Naegeli of ETH Zurich’s Advanced Interactive Technologies Lab.

    Initial tests saw eight robots successfully navigate from Point A to Point B on a collision-free path.

    “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 said.

    “While there are obviously still big challenges to scaling up to vehicles that could actually transport humans,” she continued, “we are inspired by the potential of a future in which flying cars could offer us fast, traffic-free transportation.”

    In the latest step toward the futuristic utopia of The Jetsons‘ Orbit City, manufacturer PAL-V in February began sales of the Liberty Pioneer and Liberty Sport flying cars/driving planes. A month later, Intaldesign and Airbus unveiled their modular, fully electric, zero-emissions Pop-Up concept vehicle, which can be operated on the ground or in the air.

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