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Machines Like Us

Autonomous robotic plane flies indoors

Saturday, 11 August 2012
by Larry Hardesty

New algorithms allow an autonomous robotic plane to dodge obstacles in a subterranean parking garage, without the use of GPS.

For decades, academic and industry researchers have been working on control algorithms for autonomous helicopters — robotic helicopters that pilot themselves, rather than requiring remote human guidance. Dozens of research teams have competed in a series of autonomous-helicopter challenges posed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI); progress has been so rapid that the last two challenges have involved indoor navigation without the use of GPS.

But MIT's Robust Robotics Group — which fielded the team that won the last AUVSI contest — has set itself an even tougher challenge: developing autonomous-control algorithms for the indoor flight of GPS-denied airplanes. At the 2011 International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), a team of researchers from the group described an algorithm for calculating a plane's trajectory; in 2012, at the same conference, they presented an algorithm for determining its "state" — its location, physical orientation, velocity and acceleration. Now, the MIT researchers have completed a series of flight tests in which an autonomous robotic plane running their state-estimation algorithm successfully threaded its way among pillars in the parking garage under MIT's Stata Center.

"The reason that we switched from the helicopter to the fixed-wing vehicle is that the fixed-wing vehicle is a more complicated and interesting problem, but also that it has a much longer flight time," says Nick Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and head of the Robust Robotics Group. "The helicopter is working very hard just to keep itself in the air, and we wanted to be able to fly longer distances for longer periods of time."

With the plane, the problem is more complicated because "it's going much faster, and it can't do arbitrary motions," Roy says. "They can't go sideways, they can't hover, they have a stall speed."

Found in translation

To buy a little extra time for their algorithms to execute, and to ensure maneuverability in close quarters, the MIT researchers built their own plane from scratch. Adam Bry, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and lead author on both ICRA papers, consulted with AeroAstro professor Mark Drela about the plane's design. "He's a guy who can design you a complete airplane in 10 minutes," Bry says. "He probably doesn't remember that he did it." The plane that resulted has unusually short and broad wings, which allow it to fly at relatively low speeds and make tight turns but still afford it the cargo capacity to carry the electronics that run the researchers' algorithms.