Unmanned aerial vehicles might have had some bad press recently, but they're becoming more versatile and nimble.
This flying robot, designed by a US-German team, recently won a contest in which the goal was to autonomously navigate inside a simulated nuclear power plant and find and photograph a control panel -- without the aid of GPS.
The Pelican, based on hardware designed by German start-up Ascending Technologies with programming by a team at MIT, accomplished the mission on its fourth attempt, but with only a few minutes to spare. It netted a $10,000 prize at the International Aerial Robotics Competition.
The Pelican is a micro air vehicle (MAV) with a quadrotor design, using four propellers on a carbon-fibre frame for lift and control. It maps hallways and rooms with a 30m-range laser scanner and stereo cameras while wirelessly reporting its progress to offboard computers. The location and mapping algorithm was implemented by the MIT team.
Entering its 20th year, the small but venerable IARC proposes challenges that cannot be met with current technology, military or otherwise. In its next mission, the sixth, MAVs will have to penetrate a simulated security compound, steal a flash drive and replace it with a dud before exiting safely and undetected.
It's a good thing MAVs' rotor noise still makes them sound like a thousand mosquitoes -- otherwise they might start putting spies out of business.