What goes up must come down, but how it comes down can have a big impact on where and how it used. A case in point is an unmanned, electric-powered, autonomous aircraft that researchers in Germany have gently landed on top of a car traveling at 75 km/h (47 mph). According to the team, this is the first time this has been done and it demonstrates a technique that could lead to lighter, longer flying UAVs.

The test flight took place at the Mindelheim-Mattsies airfield in Bavaria and involved a three-meter (9.8 ft), 20 kg (44 lb) fixed-wing UAV built by the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). According to DLR, the design incorporates elements of unmanned aircraft and robotics to result in an autonomous vehicle capable of approaching and landing on a moving car.

The landing was achieved using optical targets on the roof of the car, which was equipped with a flat net for the UAV to rest on. As the aircraft approached the car, it used the targets to line itself up and gauge distance within 50 cm (20 in), bringing itself in for approach and landing under computer control. Since both the car and the drone were moving at the same speed, the approach and landing were similar to that of a helicopter. While a human driver operated the car for safety reasons, as directed by calculated control commands issued through a graphic display, the team says in future it could be handled by a robotic driver.

DLR says that the car landing was much more than a stunt. It sees the technique as a way to build winged drones without landing gear, making for a lighter aircraft with more range, extra space for scientific instruments and increased payload.

The DLR says the new landing technique could prove useful when applied to solar-powered drones operating at altitudes of over 20 km (65,000 ft) for weeks at a time, by simplifying landings in adverse weather conditions. Such ultralight solar-powered aircraft could one day find applications in remote sensing, communications to complement satellite systems, and for rapid deployment in disaster situations.

The video below outlines how the UAV landing system works.

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