A team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) developed a ‘swarm’ of autonomous drones that fly in the air and drive on the ground. Led by PhD student Brandon Araki and CSAIL director Daniela Rus, the team created eight quadcopters equipped with powered wheels. Although the additional weight of the wheels dragged down the average flight time of the drone by 14 percent, the trade-off was worthwhile for the efficiency they would gain by being able to move on the ground.
Drones that make deliveries by air is comparably faster and more efficient than making deliveries by driving, so why bother to even include the feature to drones? Well, for one thing, driving requires a lot less energy than air-based travel. Also, being able to walk and fly is also typical in nature – such as birds, insects and many other animals. So why not program robots with similar versatility?
“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.”
Each drone is placed in a miniature model town, and tasked with travelling from one parking spot to another. Between those two spot were roads, along with gaps that had to be flown over, and specified no-fly zones. By using the path-planning algorithms, all eight drones can be controlled by a computer simultaneously, being able to avoid colliding with one another.
“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,” says Rus. “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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