German engineers have managed to autonomously land a drone on a car travelling at 75km/h.
The car was fitted with a large roof rack for this purpose with an elastic net to allow the 20kg UAV with a three-metre wingspan to gently lower itself onto the roof-mounted platform without causing any damage to itself or the car.
The accomplishment was the first of its kind and required engineers from the German Aerospace Centre to place a number of optical markers on the landing platform to allow the drone’s tracking system to synchronise the plane's speed automatically with that of the car. The whole landing was controlled by a computer running a sophisticated set of algorithms.
The drone navigated into the landing position with an accuracy of 50cm. Once the aircraft and the car adjusted their speeds, the plane softly lowered itself into the net.
While the experiment, carried out at a Bavarian airfield, required a human driver to control the car based on instructions provided by the computer, in future, such an interaction could be carried out between a driverless car and a fully autonomous aircraft.
The researchers originally developed the technique to allow aircraft to land without landing gear. They were particularly interested in solar-powered planes used to survey the stratosphere, for which every pound carried extra is a huge challenge.
Without the landing gear, such research planes could carry more scientific instruments and better communication equipment, as well as stay airborne longer.
However, other types of unmanned planes could benefit from the technology as well, as it is easier to land this way in crosswind conditions. A drone equipped with this technology would be less dependent on weather for landing.