Whether swooping in to deliver packages or finding disaster victims, swarms of flying robots may have a variety of important applications in the future, a study found. Interestingly, these robots can switch from driving to flying without smashing into each other while providing benefits beyond the usual flying-car concepts of sci-fi lore.
The ability to both fly and walk is common in nature. A number of bird and insect species can do both.
Meet MIT’s Flying Robots
Robots with similar versatility could simply fly over impediments on the ground or drive under overhead obstacles. Currently, however, robots that are good at one mode of transportation are usually bad at others, observed study lead author Brandon Araki, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and his colleagues in their new study.
The researchers previously created a robot named the “flying monkey” that could run, fly, and grasp items. However, the researchers had to program the paths the flying monkey would take; in other words, it could not find safe routes by itself.
Today, these scientists have developed flying cars that can drive and fly through a simulated city setting with landing areas, parking spots, and no-fly zones. According to the researchers, these drones can move autonomously without crashing into each other. “Our vehicles can find their own safe paths,” Araki said.
The researchers took eight four-rotor “quadcopter” drones and installed two small motors with wheels on the bottom of each drone, making them capable of driving. In simulations, the flying robots could soar for about 295 feet or drive for 826 feet before their batteries ran out.
To prevent the flying robots from crashing into each another, the scientists developed special algorithms that enabled collision-free navigation. In tests in a miniature town made using everyday materials such as cardboard boxes for buildings and pieces of fabric for roads, the drones successfully maneuvered the obstacles without any mishaps.
However, there’s a hitch: putting in the driving apparatus added weight to each drone, which in turn reduced battery life and decreased the drones’ maximum flying distance by about 14 percent. Still, the scientists noted that driving remained more efficient than flying; it made up for the small loss in efficiency in flying because of the extra weight.
“The most important implication of our research is that vehicles that combine flying and driving have the potential to be both much more efficient and much more useful than vehicles that can only drive or only fly,” said Araki.
The scientists cautioned that fleets of self-driving flying taxis are likely not coming anytime soon (they’ve probably never heard of self-driving helicopters in Dubai). “Our current system of drones certainly isn’t robust enough to actually carry people right now,” Araki said.
The scientists detailed their findings on June 1 at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore.