Naval Research Laboratory is teaching drones to use thermals to soar like birds

Everyone reading this has likely seen birds soaring at some point or other, effortlessly moving through the air without flapping their wings. Unlike regular gliding, which gradually results in a bird losing altitude, soaring represents a special type of gliding in which birds fly on rising air currents, known as thermals.

Dr. Dan Edwards of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory is also familiar with this type of energy-efficient locomotion. He has been fascinated by it since he was in college.

“I was studying autopilots and was hanging out with some of my friends from the robotics club,” Edwards told Digital Trends. “I can’t remember who said it, but someone raised the question of whether it would be possible to catch thermals using an autopilot. That got me thinking.”

Jump forward in time, Edwards and a team of researchers are the brains behind some smart software called ALOFT, short for Autonomous Locator of Thermals. Its goal is to allow unmanned sailplanes to fly for longer than previously thought possible by using algorithms to locate thermals to surf.

“What they’re doing is finding updrafts to keep these autopilots aloft,” Edwards said. “It’s solving the question of how you program an autopilot to be able to emulate a soaring bird’s behavior to increase the endurance of unmanned vehicles.”

The ALOFT system uses sensors already built into aircraft for measuring information related to airspeed, altitude, GPS and other data. It then logs data whenever it senses the plane getting a lift from rising air currents and based on what is called a “nonlinear curve fit,” figures out the GPS points for where it thinks thermals are located. The autopilot then attempts to hitch a ride on these thermals.

“For autonomous soaring, the goal is to be able to fly for longer while using the same amount of battery or fuel — or to be able to redirect that power to do something else instead,” Edwards said.

While early flights using the ALOFT software proved a success, what is even more exciting is the current direction of the project, which aims to get multiple unmanned aerial vehicles sharing information with one another.

“We’ve created cooperative soaring, during which a number of aircraft all do their own localized sensing and then share their data with the others,” Edwards said. “Just like a flock of birds, each bird is independent, but they will also look at their neighbors to find the best thermals for soaring.”

Going forward, Edwards told us he hoped ALOFT may be incorporated into a growing number of autopilot systems. “What we’re doing at the Naval Research Lab is carrying out research that can then transition out to the wider world,” he said. “I think it would be really interesting to get this technology out to industry for both civilian and military uses.”

Given the continued concern about drone battery life, we cannot help but think his research will be gratefully received.

Features

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.
Photography

MIT science photographer isn’t an artist, but her work could fill galleries

Felice Frankel is an award-winning photographer, but she doesn't consider herself an artist. As a science photographer, she has been helping researchers better communicate their ideas for nearly three decades with eye-catching imagery.
Smart Home

'Alexa, how much do you weigh?' Questions unlock voice assistant's Easter eggs

Sometimes all we really need is someone to talk to, which is why we've rounded up the best (read: funniest) Easter eggs currently embedded within Amazon's virtual assistant. Apparently, Alexa knows more than you might think.
Emerging Tech

Early-detection system for wildfires could save many states from big burns

When it comes to dealing with the growing problem of raging wildfires, a new wireless smart sensor system could help spot burgeoning blazes before they rage out of control. Here's how it works.
Outdoors

Light up the night! Here are the five best headlamps money can buy

Headlamps make all the difference when camping or walking the dog at night, especially when you're in need of both hands. From Black Diamond and Petzl to Coast here are some of the best headlamps on the market.
Emerging Tech

Elon Musk to unveil tunnel elevators and autonomous pods on December 18

We'll soon learn if Elon Musk's high-speed tunnel plan is a serious effort at ending traffic jams or little more than a fancy theme park ride. A big unveiling event is coming on December 18, a week later than originally planned.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!