Watch a smart drone fly through a 'forest' all on its own

MIT's algorithms let drones bob and weave around tricky obstacles.

Drones can already find their way around obstacles, but they're usually looking for obvious obstacles like walls. What about navigating through tiny spaces where there may be just inches to spare? MIT has the answer. It just demonstrated tiny quadcopter drones using cutting-edge algorithms (the same ones used in the walking Atlas robot) to wend their way through a "forest" of 26 closely-packed obstacles. The trick is to flip the usual pathfinding routine on its head -- rather than plan a course based on the obstacles, the algorithms look for free spaces and string them together to create a safe route. As the video below shows, the result is a drone that zips effortlessly around poles and wires.

That's not the only work MIT has on offer. Another project has created a fixed-wing aircraft that can avoid obstacles it has never seen before, even if it's being buffeted around by wind. The key is to pre-program a slew of worst-case scenarios and have the drone stitch those together as it looks for the best path around obstacles. With a large enough library of these scenarios, the airplane can theoretically find its way around just about anything.

Both approaches probably won't reach publicly available drones for a while, but the potential is huge. You could see search-and-rescue drones that fly through demolished buildings to locate survivors, or explorer drones that map dangerous areas by themselves. And of course, this would be practical even with off-the-shelf machines -- you wouldn't have to worry about your expensive flying robot getting tangled up in a nearby tree.

[Image credit: MIT/CSAIL]