Aerial Robots Future Of Aviation?

SACRAMENTO, Calif. --

Small but powerful aerial robots, specially programmed to avoid mid-air collisions, could help pilot the future of aviation.

"I am super optimistic about where these things can go," said Haomiao Huang, a graduate student. "I look at these things and I see the future."

Huang is part of team that is pioneering collision avoidance technology. They use small, inexpensive aircraft that are easy to build and repair. It looks like a computer motherboard attached to a square exoskeleton powered by four small propellers. It’s programmed with advanced algorithms or sets of instructions.

"It’s programmed into the individual vehicles that may come in conflict with each other," said Dr. Claire Tomlin, Professor of Electrical Engineering at both U.C. Berkeley and Stanford. "We would like to have guarantees that these algorithms will safely guide the vehicles away from each other."

The aerial robots are autonomous nimble flyers that scan the room for other robots and avoid coming in contact with them.

The hope for these systems is to eventually prevent mid-air collisions like the one that involved the Coast Guard plane from Sacramento or the collision of a tourist helicopter and small plane in New York.

And since these robots are automated and can avoid running into each other, they may eventually be used to quickly track avalanche beacons on search and rescue missions.

Dr. Tomlin said the machines can sense information about their environment while communicating with each other about what they are seeing.

"(We) try to get them to coordinate and agree on what's going on in their environment and then use that kind of algorithm for searching for the location of something," Tomlin said.

The algorithms that Tomlin speaks of have already been test in large aircraft with success.

Students like Huang said it will be the future of aviation.

"All the technology behind all of this work is going to be up there. It's going to be making in some sense the future of air travel and so thinking about that is incredibly exciting to me," Huang said.

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