MIT’s New Drones Can Autonomously Fly and Drive

As amazing as modern technology is, a lot of it is just struggling to imitate what animals mastered long ago. Birds, for example, can often walk and fly with equal ease.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) are hoping to build drones that match the agility of airborne drones with the battery life of a land-based drone.

“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 a paper that presents a system of eight quadcopter drones that can drive and fly through a city-like setting complete with parking spots, no-fly zones, and landing pads. “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.”

The quadcopters have two small motors with wheels on their underside to allow them to drive. In simulations, they could fly almost 300 feet or drive 738 feet before their batteries would run out. Using pieces of felt for roads and avoiding cardboard box buildings, the quadcopters successfully navigated the adorable-sounding fake town set up by CSAIL.

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