Advances in Flying Drones in Unfamiliar Territories


What do drones see as they swarm and how do they navigate even in in invisible environments?  A new program called NanoMap reveals the secret world of the drone. 

MIT is at the forefront of robotics engineering and the development of artificial intelligence systems. The institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is the largest research center at MIT, with over 60 research groups representing more than 900 researchers, professors, postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads.

That expertise extends to drones. A team at CSAIL announced earlier this year that it had developed a navigation system, called NanoMap, that allows drones to fly at a speed of 20 mph through dense environments like forests, but could as easily navigate dense urban environments.  .

Russ Tedrake, who is the director at CSAIL’s Center of Robotics and led the institute’s DARPA Robotics Challenge team, came up with their own version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which roughly states that certain measurements of subatomic particles, such as where they are and where they’re going, cannot be known.

In the case of a drone moving through unfamiliar territory, NanoMap considers the drone’s position over time to be uncertain and accounts for that uncertainty. It uses a depth-sensing system to stitch together a series of measurements about the drone’s immediate surroundings. This allows it to not only make motion plans for its current field of view, but also anticipate how it should move around in the hidden fields of view that it has already seen, according to the team.

“It’s kind of like saving all of the images you’ve seen of the world as a big tape in your head,” said Peter Florence, a graduate student in Tedrake’s lab, in a press release. “For the drone to plan motions, it essentially goes back into time to think individually of all the different places that it was in.”

Drones takes a very existential view of its flight path, meaning that it continues to move forward doggedly even though it doesn’t perfectly know its position and orientation as it moves through the world.

Florence was the lead author on a paper, which was also presented at the Brisbane conference, describing the NanoMap navigation system. 


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