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Bird-like robo-plane avoids obstacles in an urban jungle

A robotic plane with the moves and speed of birds, and relies on its own senses to deftly dart between a city's skyscrapers, street lights and power lines, has taken a big step closer to reality.The plane, technically called a micro air vehicle, was revealed Wednesday at a robotics conference. It flies without the assistance of external GPS or motion tracking — crutches

A robotic plane with the moves and speed of birds, and relies on its own senses to deftly dart between a city's skyscrapers, street lights and power lines, has taken a big step closer to reality.

The plane, technically called a micro air vehicle, was revealed Wednesday at a robotics conference. It flies without the assistance of external GPS or motion tracking — crutches employed by previous systems designed to tackle the problem of autonomous flying through urban environments.

Instead, the system, led by Adam Bry in MIT's Robust Robotics Group, uses an onboard inertial measurement unit — a system of gyros and accelerometers that determine things such as velocity and orientation — as well as a laser range finder and a pre-existing 3-D map of its environment to accomplish the feat.

The result is demonstrated in the video above, which Bry played during his paper presentation at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

While setting a flying robot free in an underground parking garage is certainly an impressive feat, the IEEE Automation blog notes that the requirement for a pre-existing map programmed into the robot’s system prevents this thing from being set free in terra incognita.

Still, though, flying robots are approaching the skill of flying birds, which might bode well for military planners interested in sending robotic off to battle in the next big urban war.

— Via IEEE

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.