Editorial Feature

Could Quadcopters be the ‘flying cars’ of the Future?

When people talk about flying cars, they typically imagine somehow putting wings on a car, effectively converting it into an airplane.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could change that model of thinking with a new drone quadcopter drone that can drive around on four wheels.

Currently, drones that are good at one type of transportation are usually poor at a second, if they are even capable of it. Flying drones are quick and nimble, but use a lot of power and can be limited by structures or no-fly-zones. Ground drones are more energy efficient, but have significantly less mobility.

According to a new study presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Singapore earlier this month, MIT Researchers have developed a series of eight quadcopters that can effectively navigate a city-like setting by flying and driving over parking lots, driving through no-fly areas and landing on streets.

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.A drone with wheels is much more mobile while having only a slight reduction in flying time.

Brandon Araki, a Graduate Researcher at MIT and Study Author

To make quadcopter drones able to drive, the team place two little motors with wheels at the base of each drone. In trials, the robots could fly for 90 meters or drive for slightly more than 250 meters, before running out of power.

Incorporating the driving capability to the drone somewhat decreased its battery life, meaning the maximum distance it could fly dropped 14 percent to around 300 feet. However, since driving is much more energy efficient than flying, the boost in efficiency from driving more than offset the fairly small loss in efficiency in flying as a result of the added weight.

This MIT project expands on Araki’s earlier work creating a “flying monkey” robot that could crawl, grab and fly. While the monkey robot could bound over obstacles and crawl around, it was not capable of moving autonomously. To deal with this, the team created “path-planning” algorithms designed to ensure the drones don’t crash.

This work provides an algorithmic solution for large-scale, mixed-mode transportation and shows its applicability to real-world problems.

Jingjin Yu, a Computer Science Professor, Rutgers University

The team also evaluated the system utilizing common materials like bits of fabric for roads and cardboard boxes for buildings. They tested eight robots, asking them to move from a starting point to a destination on a collision-free path. Every drone was successfully able to complete the task.

The study team noted that their drones showed a different method of creating flying cars is not to just put wings on them, but to build on drone research and add driving abilities to quadcopters.

As we begin to develop planning and control algorithms for flying cars, we are encouraged by the possibility of creating robots with these capabilities at small scale. While there are obviously still big challenges to scaling up to vehicles that could actually transport humans, we are inspired by the potential of a future in which flying cars could offer us fast, traffic-free transportation.

Daniela Rus, a Director at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Study Author

The MIT team is one of many research teams showing flying drones have a future that includes far more than just aerial photography. Chinese drone-maker DJI recently unveiled an octocopter drone capable of spraying 15 kilograms of pesticides over a farmer’s field and a University of Nebraska team is currently developing a drone capable of starting prescribed fires, controlled burns of vegetation to combat invasive species and control wildfires.

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Reference: MIT

Image Credit: Costazzurra/ Shutterstock.com

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