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Flying Cars & Robots: New Scientific Breakthrough

S u m m a r y :
MIT researchers have developed drones that can both drive and fly, hopefully paving the way for flying cars in the future!

Flying Machines in Disaster Zones

Imagine machines that could ‘walk’ and fly just like birds and (some) insects do. Then, flying cars would not be that far-fetched a concept in a world where robots could be programmed with the ability to conquer both ground and sky. However, for long, the challenge presented to researchers was that devices can be made to excel at either, but not at both. For instance, while flying drones can move about swiftly, and in an agile manner, they cannot travel long distances because of limited battery life. As for ground vehicles, they are more energy-efficient, but are slower, with restricted movement.

This limitation has been tackled by a team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Their main aim was to create machines that would be able to fly into disaster zones or construction areas where they would also drive themselves through small spaces on the ground.

Quadcopter drones

In their endeavour to making devices that could navigate themselves on both the ground and in the sky, the scientists put together a system of quadcopter drones: the devices would fly and drive through a city-like layout, into parking lots, and landing pads. Pairing the two advantages was useful in environments with obstacles: if there were barriers on the ground, the machine would fly, and if it came across overhead ones, it just had to drive underneath, explained lead author Brandon Araki.

A quadcopter drone with wheels. Photo credits: Brandon Araki/MIT CSAIL.

Drones Based on Flying Monkey Robot

The new invention is based on Araki’s previous work: he had built a flying monkey robot that could not only fly but also crawl, and grasp materials. However, the monkey could not drive itself. The new model, on the other hand, comes with two motors with wheels to make the drones capable of driving. Furthermore, the researchers included path-planning algorithms that would ensure the drones would not collide into each other.

According to the simulations that were run, the robots would fly for 90 metres or drive for 252 metres until their batteries would be depleted.

The driving ability did come with a disadvantage though: it lowered the battery life of the drones, decreasing its maximum flying distance by 14%. However, the gained efficiency of driving over flying more than compensates for the reduced battery life.

Successful Mission!

The researchers also tested the system with everyday materials and scenarios. Eight robots were made to navigate from a starting point to a set destination on a path free from obstructions; the results show that the machines were successful.

Rus explains that their system constitutes an alternative way to making flying cars: the answer would lie not just in wings on vehicles but also in building drones with driving abilities.

“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.”

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