VIRTUALLY FLYING FAST
Training drones to fly fast around even the simplest obstacles is a crash-prone exercise that can have
engineers repairing or replacing vehicles with frustrating
Now MIT engineers have developed a new virtual-reality training system for drones that enables a vehicle to
“see” a virtual environment while flying in an empty
The system — which the team has dubbed “Flight
Goggles” — could significantly reduce the number of
crashes that drones experience in actual training sessions.
It can also serve as a virtual testbed for any number of
environments and conditions in which researchers might
want to train fast-flying drones.
“We think this is a game-changer in the development of
drone technology, for drones that go fast,” says Sertac
Karaman, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics
at MIT. “If anything, the system can make autonomous
The team’s new virtual training system comprises a
motion capture system, an image rendering program, and
electronics that enable the team to quickly process images
and transmit them to the drone.
The actual test space — a hangar-like gymnasium in
MIT’s new drone-testing facility in Building 31 — is lined with
motion-capture cameras that track the orientation of the
drone as it’s flying.
With the image-rendering system, Karaman and his
colleagues can draw up photorealistic scenes, such as a loft
apartment or a living room, and beam these virtual images to
the drone as it’s flying through the empty facility.
“The drone will be flying in an empty room, but will be
‘hallucinating’ a completely different environment, and will
learn in that environment,” Karaman explains.
The virtual images can be processed by the drone at a
rate of about 90 frames per second — around three times as
fast as the human eye can see and process images. To enable
this, the team custom-built circuit boards that integrate a
powerful embedded supercomputer, along with an inertial
measurement unit and a camera. They fit all this hardware
into a small 3D-printed nylon and carbon fiber reinforced
MIT engineers have developed a new virtual-reality training system for drones
that enables a vehicle to “see” a rich virtual environment while flying in an
empty physical space.
Starship’s initiative is the first large scale
deployment of autonomous
delivery services, supporting
campuses by implementing
robots to assist in work and
school environments. The
robots offer on-demand
delivery anywhere on
participating campuses via an
app, offering employees the
flexibility and convenience of
having food delivery when and
where they want; eliminating
unwanted errands and waiting
in line; or transporting items to
and from other locations on
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