Could a future of ubiquitous drones whizzing overhead be nearer than we think? MIT researchers say yes and are working on solving one of the technology’s biggest barriers to success – power.
Not too long ago Amazon made waves when it announced it wanted to begin fulfilling orders via drones. While the idea was met with various degrees of enthusiasm, one practical obstacle stood in the idea’s way—the battery life of quadcopter-style drones. Built to travel no more than 10 miles in any given direction, a squadron of Amazon quadcopters would be too closely tethered to their home base to do any of the real heavy lifting the retail giant would require. Though this may have grounded Amazon’s plans for the time being a team of researchers at MIT are developing techniques that will allow drones to wander much farther than before.
Taking a cue from our feathered friends, MIT’s CSAIL lab has constructed an ultra-lightweight drone that can fly through the air and perch on power lines when it’s weak on juice. Built around a completely onboard control system the CSAIL flyer can automatically tip its wings, slow itself and hook onto a target line. Though those capabilities have been built into drones before, one way or another, previous incarnations of a perching drone have required separate computers or off-board cameras.
"It’s challenging to design a control system that can slow down a fixed-wing aircraft enough to land on a perch," says CSAIL PhD student Joe Moore. "Our strategy accomplishes this and can do so in outdoor environments using only on-board sensors."
As of now MIT’s system can’t actually do any of the recharging that would be required to complete CSAIL’s proposed system. However, researchers believe that once lighted on a power line a UAV would be able to use the wire’s magnetic field emissions to recharge in between stations.
Breaking Update: The FAA has issued a rule grounding all possible drone delivery services stating "delivering of packages to people for a fee" have been banned.
Image and Video Courtesy of MIT