MIT's smart flying drones

Summary:As recent events have shown, military forces around the world are more and more relying on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance missions. Now, MIT researchers have developed a multiple-UAV test platform which can be operated by anyone with a high-speed Internet connection. But read more...

As recent events have shown, military forces around the world are more and more relying on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance missions. But these UAVs usually need many skilled operators to control them. Now, the Boston Globe reports that a new MIT 'air force' is ready for help. MIT researchers have developed a multiple-UAV test platform which can be operated by anyone with a high-speed Internet connection. And these small and inexpensive helicopters could soon stay in the air for a week, automatically coming back to their base and landing to recharge their batteries. But read more...

This multiple-UAV test platform has been developed by Jonathan How, an associate professor at MIT in charge of the Aerospace Controls Laboratory, and his graduate systems. Here is what he says to the Boston Globe about his lab and the drones developed there.

The new MIT indoor flying lab is helping to simplify one of the biggest challenges to wider deployment of unmanned vehicles: developing the very complex, perfectly reliable software and telecommunications systems to manage a fleet of flying devices and keep them from crashing into each other.
"Ultimately, when you are taking these devices out into real-world applications, you want people to perform a task like surveillance of the border. You don't want them spending a lot of time figuring out how to fly the vehicle," How said.

Below is a picture of two of How's graduate students, Brett Bethke (left), and Mario Valenti, watching an UAV, "one in a fleet of four they helped develop to execute surveillance and tracking tasks." (Credit: Donna Coveney, for MIT)

One of the MIT's indoor UAVs

And below is a picture of the whole fleet in action. (Credit: Jonathan How's team)

The MIT's indoor fleet of UAVs

Here are additional details provided by Lauren Clark, who wrote an article about MIT's intelligent aircraft for MIT News (September 26, 2006).

The test platform consists of five miniature "quadrotor" aircraft -- helicopters with four whirling blades instead of one -- each a little smaller than a seagull. It also includes an indoor positioning system, as well as several miniature autonomous ground vehicles that the UAVs can track from the air.
Each UAV [, costing only about $700,] is networked with a PC. The setup allows a single operator to command the entire system, flying multiple UAVs simultaneously. Moreover, it requires no piloting skills; software flies the vehicles from takeoff to landing.

How and his students also have built a docking station where the UAVs can recharge their batteries when they are running low. This was probably already difficult, but the team decided to go further and to give the ability to their drones to land on moving vehicles.

Using "monocular vision," one of the quadrotors successfully landed on a moving vehicle -- a remote-controlled lab cart. A video camera fastened to the UAV uses a visual "target" to determine in real time the vehicle's distance relative to the landing platform. The ground station then uses this information to compute commands that allow the UAV to land on the moving platform. This technology could enable UAVs to land on ships at sea or on Humvees moving across terrain.

If you think that the UAV business is small, you're wrong. According to the Boston Globe, it "will represent a $55 billion worldwide market over the next 10 years. Annual spending on flying drone systems could triple, to $8.3 billion in 2016 from $2.7 billion now."

Finally, for more information about these MIT drones, you should visit the UAV SWARM Health Management Project website. Here are two links to a project overview and to some videos of the flying robots.

Sources: Peter J. Howe, The Boston Globe, November 20, 2006; and various websites

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Topics: Travel Tech

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