Academic and industry researchers have been obsessed with the idea of autonomous robotic vehicles for decades, and now it seems that a group at MIT might have brought the world one step closer. Members of MIT’s Robust Robotics Group recently released a video of an autonomous robotic airplane that can successfully navigate around indoor obstacles without the use of GPS. Using an an algorithm for determining its “state” — its location, physical orientation, velocity and acceleration — the plane successfully threaded its way among pillars in the parking garage under MIT’s Stata Center.

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“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,” Nick Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and head of the Robust Robotics Group, told MIT News. “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.”

Using data from a laser rangefinder and inertial sensors — accelerometers and gyroscopes — that it carries on board, the robot plane determines its location on a pre-programmed map while flying. It also has to deduce its orientation — how much it’s tilted in any direction — its velocity, and its acceleration. This means that at any given moment, the airplane has to calculate 15 different values at once. The researchers say their next step will be to develop algorithms that can build a map of the plane’s environment on the fly.

+MIT News