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MIT Drones Show How To Deploy Flying Cars Without CHAOS

TImeOdd Stories - MIT Drone
MIT CSAIL

LET ME ASK you this: Do you trust other drivers? If you answered yes, then you’ve never been in a car, or used a crosswalk, or gone outside. Good news is, technology will eliminate horrible human decision-making with self-driving cars. But then you’ve got another beast to deal with: the flying car. Can you imagine a world where Mr. Bean is allowed to roam the sky?

Well have no fear, because MIT researchers have crafted a beautifully orchestrated framework for how a swarm of driving and flying robots might share the streets and air without kickstarting a societal meltdown. Sure, so far this is on a little scale with little drones, but it’s also a good first step toward imagining a transportation infrastructure that works in three dimensions, not just two.

TImeOdd Stories - MIT Drone1
MIT CSAIL

Now, you may not know it, but you want a flying car. Not just because you’ve been promised the things for so many years, but because the logical way to get from one place to another is to hop over obstacles like traffic and buildings. But flying ain’t perfect. “Driving robots are stable and energy-efficient, but have trouble with obstacles or rough terrain,” says MIT roboticist Brandon Araki, lead author of the study. “Flying robots like quadcopters, meanwhile, are agile and highly mobile but have low energy efficiency and limited battery life.”

So you’ve got a tradeoff here. What would be ideal is a hybrid of the two styles, a vehicle that can either fly or drive in any given situation. To that end, Araki and his colleagues took a small quadcopter and gave it wheels and extra motors. Now the drone could operate much like a housefly, taking flight when need be, but puttering around on the ground to save energy for short journeys. Of course, that makes for a much more complicated world of traffic.

So the Frankenstein quadcopter needed some math. “We developed path-planning algorithms for avoiding collisions and for determining which method of transportation is most effective given the immediate environment and the relative tradeoffs of speed versus energy use,” Araki says.

TImeOdd Stories - MIT Drone
MIT CSAIL

In a tiny version of a neighborhood, complete with houses and roads, the team was able to optimize eight drones to balance between energy and speed by taking to the air or rolling, while not crashing into each other in the process. It’s actually quite a beautiful dance, as drones take off and land while others shuffle by. Think of the madness of flying-car transportation in The Fifth Element, tamed into a system free of accidents—and Multipasses, I suppose. Bzzzz!

Sure, tiny drones navigating the floor of a lab isn’t exactly a real-world triumph. But hey, self-flying cars aren’t here yet (though it would seem like they’re not too far off). What Araki and his team have shown is that the skies of the future won’t be the chaos you might fear. There are perfectly reasonable and mathematical ways to go about it.

Looking at you, Mr. Bean.

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Written by TimeOdd

TimeOdd is a leading technology media property, dedicated to obsessively profiling startups, reviewing new Internet products, and breaking tech news.

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