By Mary Grady, Contributing editor
A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has designed an autonomous airplane that is able to follow an internal map through a parking garage and navigate successfully, avoiding obstacles, without the use of GPS. The airplane, which has a wingspan of about 6 feet, has to determine where it is on the map in real time, using data from sensors it carries on board -- a laser rangefinder, gyroscopes and accelerometers. It also has to deduce its orientation, velocity and acceleration. To keep track of its position relative to the map at any moment, the airplane has to calculate 15 different values, according to MIT.
Aeronautics professor Nick Roy, head of the research team, said they chose to work with a fixed-wing aircraft instead of a helicopter because it can fly longer and farther, but also because it presents "a more complicated and interesting problem." The airplane is going much faster than a rotorcraft, it can't go sideways or hover, and it can stall if it goes too slow. The researchers now plan to develop technology that will enable the airplane to build a map of its environment on the fly. "There are definitely significant challenges to be solved," says Adam Bry, a graduate student working on the research. "But I think that it's certainly possible."