Monday, 23 January 2012

For Lightning-Fast Drones, Add a Bird's Intuition

How are you able to move through a dense forest or crowd, maximizing your speed while avoiding a collision? Intuition — something not easily computer-programmed.

Lacking this trait, robots cannot navigate obstacle-riddled environments nearly as fast as living things can, nor as fast as roboticists or the military would like. As it stands, the simplest way to maximize the speed of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is to have them go as fast as possible while still being able to stop within the length of their field of view. For example, if their sensors can detect obstacles up to 100 meters ahead, then they must be capable of decelerating to zero within 100 meters.

But living things can do much better. For this reason, roboticists and aeronautics engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have teamed up with biologists at Harvard University to model the behavior of one of nature's best forest flyers, a bird called the northern goshawk. With the reflexes of a spring trap, this raptor zips through forests at breakneck speeds, continuously adjusting its flight path to avoid collisions with trees and, through superior flight skills, catching the birds and small mammals on which it preys.

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