MIT Makes iPhone App for Controlling UAVs and a Proposal to Combine with Electric and Hybrid Planes for Robotic Flying “Cars”

MIT Professor Missy Cummings and the MIT Research in the Humans and Automation Lab have successfully demonstrated how an iPhone could be used to control an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or UAV. Currently soldier carry suitcase-sized controllers.

The US military now has 7,000 unmanned aircraft and at least 10,000 ground vehicles.

(Part of an 18 page pdf newsletter), advances in autopilot technology combined with the relatively simple flight tasks required of UAS leave little
need for traditional pilots to operate the remote-controlled planes, argues MIT professor and former Navy fighter pilot Missy Cummings.

Better than Flying Cars
This technology is also an important step in automation to enable my vision of commuter UAVs. The commuter UAV would be unmanned in terms of the pilot, but would carry passengers in an air taxi service. If the piloting skills can be removed then we can have electric or hybrid planes and helicopters fly people from point to point over traffic. There are new two seat electric planes emerging with 100+ mph speed and 438 mpg equivalent efficiency. This could be the safer and more efficient replacement system for long commutes, that is faster and better than robotic electric cars.

There are almost 250,000 general aviation planes in the USA. Electric and hybrid planes in the $40,000-140,000 range will further expand those numbers. High volumes could bring the price down and numbers of these planes up.

Popular Mechanics reports on electric planes at the Oshkosh air show

Norgan aircraft is developing the Extremely Maneuverable Jet (EM–J), which will be able to take off and land similar to a helicopter because of rotors on each side of its fuselage. However, it will fly like an airplane, reaching a speed of 425 mph and a range of 1,600 miles, because of its two jet engines. It will be designed to carry two pilots and seven passengers. It is not electric powered, but it is something that could become another step toward iPhone air taxis. The state Department of Commerce has offered about $30 million in financial incentives toward the EM-J project.

2007 photo of some scale models of the Morgan Aircraft EM-J

There is $5 million research project awarded to Northrop Grumman for “Hybrid Electric UAV High Endurance Renewable Propulsion and Power System”

Spain’s National Institute of Aerospace Technology has developed the first airplane-helicopter hybrid, an unmanned aerial vehicle that will be operational in 2010 and is designed to monitor borders and coastlines. The HADA, the first prototype of which will carry a cargo of up to 150 kg and will be able to remain airborne for 3-6 hours.

From Wired Danger Room, the lab’s current iPhone and small-UAV combo relies on GPS signals, so it only works outside. The kinds of users Cummings imagines — Marines and soldiers in urban combat, of course, but also everyday city dwellers looking to scope out the line at the local Starbucks — need bots that work indoors, where GPS signals can’t reach. Solving that problem is the thrust of Cummings’ follow-on project.

Her team’s solution: equip a small robot with LIDAR, fast-scanning lasers that can create quick, electronic models of any environment. Plus, giving the bot new computer algorithms for sending the models back to the iPhone, in the form of simple, graphical maps. Those algorithms were developed by Nick Roy and his team from MIT’s Robust Robotics Group.

“The goal is that a small micro-UAV (we typically use quad-rotors) can enter a window or door and then map the world, both in 2D and 3D,” Cummings said. The 2D part, seen in the flight-test video above, isn’t too hard, but 3D will take her team at least until Christmas. You need 3D for displaying things like stairs, she said.

The MIT Research in the Humans and Automation Lab also has an software program for submarine commander situational awareness.