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MIT is building autonomous drones that can both drive and fly

Flying takes a lot of battery life, but driving means getting stuck in traffic.

Researchers from MIT on Monday shared a new prototype for a system of wheeled, autonomous drones that can switch between flying and driving.

The drones, which were built at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, also include route-planning software that can help calculate when the flying robot switches from air to ground in order to optimize its battery life.

The project foreshadows a future where autonomous transportation may one day be able to both sail above traffic but also navigate roads in dense urban environments.

“Normal drones can’t maneuver on the ground at all. A drone with wheels is much more mobile while having only a slight reduction in flying time,” said MIT graduate student Brandon Araki, who is a lead author on a paper about the new research, in a statement.

A drone that drives on the ground when appropriate could actually prove more efficient overall. It can save time by flying instead of being stuck in traffic, and also save its battery life by traveling on the ground when the vehicle doesn’t need to fly to reach its destination.

To test out the new system, researchers built a small model of a city block, with buildings, parking spots, roadways and landing pads, along with eight small drones with wheels.

The dream of autonomous flying cars (or autonomous driving drones) isn’t limited to MIT. Companies like Uber and Kitty Hawk, which counts Google co-founder Larry Page as an investor, are working to make flying cars a reality one day. In April, Uber said it hopes to bring flying cars to U.S. airspace by 2020.

But as this new research from MIT demonstrates, the future of autonomous transportation might be less about attaching wings to a car and more about adding wheels to a drone.

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