Flying drones are fast and they aren't stopped by rough terrain, so why would we even want to bother with ones that move along the ground? Well, for one thing, ground-based travel requires a lot less energy than flight. Additionally, wheeled vehicles are able to maneuver into tighter quarters. With that in mind, a team from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has developed a "swarm" of autonomous drones that both drive on the ground and fly in the air.
Led by PhD student Brandon Araki and CSAIL director Daniela Rus, the researchers created eight quadcopters that were also equipped with powered wheels. Although the extra weight of the wheels decreased their maximum flight distance by 14 percent, it was considered a worthwhile trade-off for the efficiency they would gain by being able to move along the ground.
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Each drone was placed in miniature model town, and tasked with travelling from a parking spot in one region to one in another. Between those two spots were roads, along with a gap that had to be flown over, and specified no-fly zones.
Controlled by a computer utilizing path-planning algorithms, all eight of the drones were able to make their trips simultaneously, without colliding with one another on the ground or in the air. Scaled up, the technology may one day have applications for systems in which passengers are picked up at their homes by road-travelling autonomous vehicles, which then take flight where and when it makes the most sense to do so.
"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," says Rus. "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."
The drones can be seen in action, in the following video.