When is a Drone Like an Albatross? Ask MIT

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MIT engineers have done it again – this time creating an autonomous glider drone that can survey hundreds of miles of ocean surface all while being powered naturally by the wind.

Created to mimic the albatross, the drone can dip a keel into the water in calm winds to travel like a sailboat – scampering across the sea 10 times faster than an average sailboat. When winds pick up, the winged UAV skims the surface of the ocean – all while using one-third as much wind as its avian counterpart.

Weighing in at a slim six pounds with an almost 10-foot wingspan, the as-yet unnamed drone design can range in speeds 5.75 to 23 mph.

The oceans remain vastly undermonitored,” says Gabriel Bousquet, a former postdoc in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who led the design of the robot as part of his graduate thesis. “In particular, it’s very important to understand the Southern Ocean and how it is interacting with climate change. But it’s very hard to get there. We can now use the energy from the environment in an efficient way to do this long-distance travel, with a system that remains small-scale.”

The journey from fine-feathered observations to a working drone design began as the team created an academic paper about albatross flight a few years ago.

Researchers discovered that an albatross can execute a maneuver called “a transfer of momentum, in which it takes momentum from higher, faster layers of air, and by diving down transfers that momentum to lower, slower layers, propelling itself without having to continuously flap its wings.”

Bousquet also noted that the bird’s flight propulsion resembles sailboat travel. “Both the albatross and the sailboat transfer momentum in order to keep moving. But in the case of the sailboat, that transfer occurs not between layers of air, but between the air and water.”

The team will soon present their findings at the IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation, in Brisbane, Australia.

MIT continues to produce game-changing drone research. Recently, researchers developed a VR training platform that “fools” drones into “seeing” and flying around virtual obstacles despite operating in an open space. The platform may prove useful in the growing trend of FPV drone flight.



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