MIT Drone Flies and Drives

mit-drone-flies-and-drives photo 1

A quadcopter's Achilles heel is its battery life. But a new drone that engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology devised recently isn't an ordinary quadcopter: it can drive on land in addition to flying, potentially greatly extending its range.

The new drone is based on the Bitcraze Crazyflie 2.0, a bare bones quadcopter with an open-source control interface, perhaps best described as the Raspberry Pi of drones. In MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL) laboratory, PhD students and undergraduates added two additional motors and a set of wheels to the Crazyflie, all controllable via the drone's modified firmware.

The modified Crazyflie is designed to fly and drive almost completely autonomously. Its owner can program a list of waypoints and arrival times for the drone to follow. The software then determines the best route using a combination of flying and driving. The drone can automatically detect a transition between the two modes, too. For instance, if the destination is inside a small space, the drone can land nearby and then drive the final distance.

"The ability to both fly and drive is useful in environments with a lot of barriers, since you can fly over ground obstacles and drive under overhead obstacles," MIT PhD student Brandon Araki said in a statement.

Drones, like all flying machines, are designed to minimize the amount of weight they must carry. So adding wheels and motors means the modified Crazyflie's maximum flying distance is decreased by 12 percent, according to the engineers.


  • The Best Drones of 2017The Best Drones of 2017

But they soon discovered that the increased flexibility of their dual-mode design somewhat offset the range penalty. Their fully charged Crazyflies could fly 300 feet or drive 830 feet before their batteries ran out, and using up the entire battery in driving mode resulted in a range seven times greater than the flying distance of an unmodified Crazyflie.

If similar results can be achieved using much larger drones—potentially ones that can carry humans—it could transform autonomous urban transportation, something Uber, Airbus, and other companies are already working on.

"While there are obviously still big challenges to scaling up to vehicles that could actually transport humans, we are inspired by the potential of a future in which flying cars could offer us fast, traffic-free transportation," CSAIL director Daniela Rus said in a statement.

Recommended stories

The Best External Hard Drives of 2017

Did you know that a 2-terabyte portable drive that slides in your pocket costs well below $100 these days? Here's a look at our top-rated hard drives across a span of capacities, prices, and capabilities.

Relax MIT Drone Flies and Drives stories

Honda Aiming for 'Level 4' Automated Driving by 2025

Level 4 (high automation) means the vehicle can handle all driving tasks in most situations, with possible exceptions during inclement weather or unusual driving environments, where a driver would be required to take over.

Sprint Goes All In on Unlimited

Sprint will phase out plans with data allowances for unlimited data plans. To kick things off, new Unlimited Freedom customers will pay $50 for one unlimited line until mid-2018.

More stories