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Robotic plane mimics hummingbird’s maneuverability


Researchers at MIT have developed a prototype miniature robotic plane that can make knife-edge turns and split-second adjustments to its flight path to avoid obstacles. The prototype is about two feet wide and weighs a little more than a pound, including an onboard motion-capture camera to help it maneuver. In laboratory flight tests, the plane made it through horizontal and vertical obstacles that were narrower than its wingspan by flexing and bending its wing surfaces. A remote computer analyzes the plane’s trajectory and detects obstacles using data from the onboard camera. It then sends control signals to tiny motors that can rapidly change the angle of attack of each wing. In the near term, the researchers hope to understand the complex aerodynamics at work, since airflow is rarely smooth when performing rapid extreme maneuvers such as the knife-edge turn. Eventually they envision small robotic planes able to navigate through forests while avoiding obstacles, just like birds.