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Putting the “Unmanned” Back in Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

Written by on Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

We like to call those pilot-less aircraft zipping around the skies nowadays “drones” but the original term for these gadgets were UAV, unmanned aerial vehicles. I bring that up because I want to emphasize the “unmanned” portion of UAVs. Calling these aircraft “unmanned” gives the impression that they’re completely autonomous, but that’s rarely the case. Most drones either rely on an off-board navigation system or a pilot who’s controlling the aircraft remotely.

This dependence on an operator severely limits the freedom of drones. You’ve either got to pay somebody to operate the aircraft, or you have to maintain an expensive, high-tech piece of machinery that processes all of that information and sends it back to the drone.

Developers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a way to put the autonomy back into drones by developing technology that should allow drones to navigate an area entirely on their own. This miniature prototype drone uses lasers to scan the surrounding topography, processes that information entirely on-board, and then determines the best course of action based on the available data. What’s so amazing about this achievement is that they pulled it off with a tiny model aircraft that’s about two meters long, so the hardware is extremely lightweight and doesn’t hog a lot of processing power.

In one of the flight cheap cialis pills tests, they flew the prototype through a parking garage, forcing it to navigate corridors that were sometimes only half a meter wider than the aircraft, itself. The aircraft would frequently squeeze between openings that left only centimeters between the tips of its wings and the parking garage walls.

Needless to say, this type of technology would potentially have enormous applications for the US Air Force. We’ve been experimenting with autonomous flight for years, but the fact that the USAF has hundreds of drone pilots working around the clock should demonstrate just how much farther we still have to go. Creating a system that will allow a drone to fly on its own will ultimately free up man power and tax dollars that can go towards other projects.

The USAF isn’t going to be able to stick this type of technology into every single drone. Highly dangerous attack drones, for example, will probably need a human pilot. Search and rescue or reconnaissance aircraft, however, would be able to operate on this simple algorithm without USAF officials needing to worry too much about a malfunction. After all, programming a computer to know not to fly nose-first into a mountain is one thing, but being able to recognize friend from foe in a combat situation is a much more complicated and life-endangering matter.


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