Quadcopter with wheels

Squad of drones prove capable of both flying and driving

Image credit: Brandon Araki/MIT

A team of researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a squad of autonomous robots capable of flying and driving through complex environments.

In biology, most flying animals – such as birds, winged dinosaurs and insects – are also capable of travelling on the ground, though not always elegantly. While there is a growing number of amphibious robots, there is a dearth of man-made machines capable of travelling in the air and on the ground. Drones, for instance, cannot manoeuvre on the ground at all.

Attempting to address this deficiency, a team of researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have been working to create a squad of drones which are capable of both flying and driving.

These capabilities would allow greater versatility; for instance, if a drone lands on the ground while low on battery, it could return to its base using more energy-efficient ground-based transport. Autonomous disaster relief robots could, with these capabilities, fly into a disaster zone and then drive along the ground to monitor the environment and search for survivors.

According to Brandon Araki, the PhD student who led the study, a drone with wheels is far more mobile than a drone capable of just flight, while only causing a slight reduction in flying time.

The project builds on Mr Araki’s previous work on a flying robotic monkey capable of simple crawling, grasping and “hopping” motions. The robot, however, was not autonomous.

The MIT team began by attaching motors and wheels to the bottom of quadcopters – multirotor drones lifted and propelled by four rotors – and developed path-planning algorithms in order to prevent the squad of drones from colliding with each other and other obstacles.

In test simulations, the drones were able to fly for 90m or drive for 252m on battery power. The system of eight drones were capable of all flying and driving through a mock-up city setting with no-fly zones, parking spots and landing pads, with no collisions.

The gain in efficiency from driving was more than enough to offset the extra work needed to be done due to the weight of the driving components.

According to Professor Daniela Rus, director of the CSAIL, systems such as these suggest that a different approach to creating flying cars to avoid traffic is not to simply add wings to cars – such as in the story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – but to add driving capabilities to drones.

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