MIT's 'Drones That Drive' Could Be a Significant Step Toward Flying Cars

MIT researchers have developed drones that can fly and drive marking a potentially huge step toward the mythical flying car of the future.

Alex Waller / MIT CSAIL

Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have developed a series of autonomous UAVs that implement both flying and driving capabilities and allow the two to work in tandem, according to MIT News. This undertaking finally combines both the land and air requirements that the mythical flying car would have to satisfy in order to be a viable, functional version in the future. 

To be clear, the idea of designing a flying car was not CSAIL's primary goal. CSAIL Director Daniela Rus and her team wanted to make drone deliveries more efficient by having their UAVs fly over obstacles or drive beneath them—whichever would be more efficient, according to MIT News. Once Rus and her team made enough progress, however, it became clear that their achievements would become markers along the way of the inevitable flying car's creation. 

"As we begin to develop planning and control algorithms for flying cars, we are encouraged by the possibility of creating robots with these capabilities at small scale," Rus said. "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." 

In 2016, the CSAIL research team developed a drone inspired by the male stag beetle resulting in a UAV that "walks, grasps, flies, and clocks in at less than 1/10th of a pound." That nifty little thing used part of the DragonflEye tech which we reported on a few weeks ago, making "hopping over obstacles, crawling under or through small openings, and picking up small objects" a reality. This time around, however, Rus wanted to create autonomous drones, pre-loaded with algorithms designed to avoid collision with objects and each other, as well as the aforementioned ability to drive by attaching two motorized wheels at the bottom. Of course, adding extra weight in the form of motors and wheels takes away from the maximum flight time, but it's a small price to pay for a functional land-and-sky drone that could prove monumental in the trajectory toward a flying car. 

Take a look at these flying and driving UAVs below, courtesy of MIT's CSAIL.

Now, as the video above tells us, ground-level transportation is fairly slow, while air travel is restricted by its battery-life. These limitations are hurdles that CSAIL is desperate to overcome, and are likely the primary focus at this current stage. We're excited to see Rus and her make progress on that front, and will make sure to keep an eye on this project as it evolves.