Drones could recharge their batteries by perching on power lines like birds

Micro Electronics

by Duncan MacRae| 23 June 2014

The new technology could hugely benefit the development of delivery drones.

A birdlike drone that can perch on an electricity line has been developed that could revolutionalise they way in which unmanned aerial vehicles are powered.

The single-motor glider, created by scientists at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratories (CSAIL), could lead to UAVs recharging their batteries using the magnetic fields emitted by the power lines.

The device has a complex control system that automatically directs it to slow down, tip its wings, and hook onto a line, even in moderate wind conditions. Previous versions required wall-mounted cameras and a separate computer, but CSAIL's latest iteration has on-board sensors and electronics that can plan and execute moves in real-time.

PhD student Joe Moore said that when his team was first thinking about how to improve UAV agility, they thought it would be helpful to take cues from birds.

They spent hours researching eagles' and pigeons' abilities to stall - a complex phenomenon that involves flaring their wings, angling their bodies, maintaining high velocity, and accurately judging the trajectory needed to perch.

Creating a computer model to execute a stall manoeuvre has typically been computationally difficult. As described in a 2010 MIT News article, the angles needed to pull it off result in airflow over the wings that is difficult to predict, which is why engineers have designed conventional planes to land the way they do -- the long descent, the gradual braking, and the mile-long runway.

Moore said: "It's challenging to design a control system that can slow down a fixed-wing aircraft enough to land on a perch. Our strategy accomplishes this and can do so in outdoor environments using only on-board sensors."

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