Algorithm Let Drones Dodge Obstacles in Simulated 'Forest'


Getting drones to fly around without hitting things is no small task. Obstacle-detection and motion-planning are two of computer science's trickiest challenges, because of the complexity involved in creating real-time flight plans that avoid obstacles and handle surprises like wind and weather. Researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) demonstrated software that allow drones to stop on a dime to make hairpin movements over, under, and around 26 distinct obstacles in a simulated 'forest.' The video shows a small quadrotor doing donuts and figure-eights through an obstacle course of strings and PVC pipes. Weighing just over an ounce and clocking in at 3 and a half inches from rotor to rotor, the drone can fly through the 10-square-foot space at speeds upwards of 1 meter per second. To sense its surroundings, the drone used motion-capture optical sensors and an on-board inertial measurement unit (IMU) that help estimate the precise positioning of obstacles. The team's algorithms segment space into 'obstacle-free regions' and then link them together to find a single collision-free route.