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MIT develops drones that can drive and fly

Cartoon legend George Jetson might have taken a flying saucer-like car to work. But in this day and age, a modern-day version might one day hitch a ride on a drone instead.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have announced the development of a system of quadcopter drones that are able to navigate both on the land and in the sky. The drones can work and move with precision, making that old-school flying car seem pretty obsolete in its wake.

DRONES COULD USE AN INVISIBLE LICENSE PLATE TO TRACK UNAUTHORIZED FLIGHTS

Robots, ground vehicles and drones have their individual strengths and, more to the point, weaknesses, according to MIT. For example, a typical robot can’t master more than one mode of transportation, while drones are unable to fly long distances due to limited battery life. Meanwhile, ground vehicles are slower and less mobile.

Part of the project builds on MIT CSAIL graduate student and lead author Brandon Araki’s “flying monkey” robot, which is able to crawl, grasp and fly, but unable to travel autonomously. To create mobility that would work efficiently, the lab developed path-planning algorithms that ensure drones don’t collide with one another. Researchers also added two small motors with wheels on the bottom of the vehicles to enable them to drive.

The team developed eight quadcopter drones for the project. They are able to fly and drive through city-like conditions, including parking spots, no-fly zones and landing pads, according to MIT.

DRONE SWARMS DEPLOYED IN AERIAL DOGFIGHT TEST

The team engaged the vehicles by testing them on everyday materials, such as fabric for roads and boxes for buildings. All eight prototypes were able to navigate from a start to end without any collissions, according to MIT.

Araki wrote in an email that this particular type of vehicle could be used to assist with construction or emergency response. “Imagine having drones that can fly into disaster zones that aren’t road- accessible, or robots that can fit into small spaces to search for disaster survivors,” wrote Araki.

The initial testing resulted in vehicles that could fly 90 meters and drive 252 meters before their batteries ran out. MIT noted that driving contributed to a slight reduction of battery life and the maximum distance a drone could fly was about 300 feet, representing a decrease by 14%.

Araki added that driving drones could prove useful in package delivery and entertainment, while wheels on quadcopters could enable photographers to land drones on platforms and then position them in order to take better pictures. Meanwhile, improving the systems’ algorithms could allow the vehicles to deliver heavy packages, explore dangerous environments, or gather other useful information.

“I think it's worthwhile to explore the drone framework in more detail as researchers continue to work on various ideas related to flying cars,” wrote Araki. “There is always a tradeoff between performance and safety, though, so it's is important that future researchers always emphasize safety, even if it comes at a cost to performance.”