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April 7, 2013

Smart Tiny Planes

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From spies in the sky to deadly guns in the air, small unmanned aerial vehicles are playing bigger roles in military operations. But as this ScienCentral News video explains, the next "big" thing is for them to get even smaller and smarter.

Unmanned Flyers

A tiny helicopter following a remote control car may seem like child's play. But Jonathan How and his team at M.I.T. are developing small "smart" helicopters designed to work together without human intervention for military-type missions, like tracking a moving vehicle or surveillance of a building. A single personal computer on the ground controls everything from takeoff to landing, and even monitors the aircrafts' health.

"So we know for instance if the battery state is low, or if they're having an issue with the motors and the propellers. The vehicles themselves are not flying well, and as a result would not be able to perform the mission as required," says How.

Since the vehicles are inexpensive, off-the-shelf products that can be easily repaired or replaced, the researchers can experiment without worrying about expensive repairs.

image: ILC Dover/University of Kentucky
The artificial intelligence software has so far coordinated up to five of these helicopters at a time. But they're just one entry into an already crowded field. As reported in Scientific American magazine, researchers at ILC Dover are creating an inflatable unmanned plane to be stored in a soldier's backpack. In less than a second, it inflates into a working plane. They are currently performing flight tests at the University of Kentucky.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used for years by the military, but How sees their role expanding, perhaps as border patrol agents.

"Where maybe instead of having vehicles sort of manning the border themselves, you can actually have a person sitting in a pickup truck controlling a whole collection of these UAVs doing border protection," says How.

The ILC team, which designed air bags for the Mars rovers, hopes to aim even higher, sending their inflatable planes on a space mission to Mars. Their compactibility makes them ideal for such a mission, where storage space is very limited.

How says that by the end of the year, their system will be flying ten vehicles simultaneously without any human intervention.

How's research was presented at the 2006 AIAA Guidance, Navigation and Control Conference (Aug. 2006), 2006 AIAA Structures, Structural Dynamics, and Materials Conference (May 2006), and Scientific American magazine (Jan. 2006). His research is funded by Boeing Phantom Works, Department of Defense, and NASA.

       email to a friend by James Eagan

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