Design a Custom Drone with New MIT Software

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Last week the United Launch Alliance made space fans weak in the knees when it released a website that allows anyone to design custom rockets. While this is a great education tool and window into what it must be like to be Elon Musk, most of us can’t afford to drop $150 million on a missile.

But for those of you who are intent on getting airborne on a custom-designed flying machine, fear not: a new system from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) allows anyone to design their own custom drone.

The CSAIL researchers created the first system that allows a non-expert user to design, simulate and build a drone customized based on payload, cost, flight time and battery life specifications. Once a user has built a digital version of the machine, they can run a flight simulation to make sure the thing will actually work.

“This system opens up new possibilities for how drones look and function,” Wojciech Matusik, who oversaw the project in CSAIL’s Computational Fabrication Group, said in a statement. “It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach for people who want to make and use drones for particular purposes.”

While the system might sound like little more than a gimmick, it was designed to solve real problems faced by people who are beginning to use drones for everything from surveillance and videography to putting out forest fires. While consumer quadcopters can often do the job after some non-trivial customization work, this option isn’t really available to non-experts.

Developing multicopters like these that are actually flyable involves a lot of trial-and-error, tweaking the balance between all the propellers and rotors,” said Tao Du, a CSAIL PhD student and the co-lead author of the paper. “It would be more or less impossible for an amateur user, especially one without any computer-science background.”

The bunny-copter. Image: Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL

One of the major challenges of creating a custom drone system was overcoming the strong link between a drone’s shape and how it is programmed to move. The CSAIL team found that when they used a regular controller for a commercial quadcopter to steer their custom drones—which included unusual shapes like a hexcopter and “bunny-copter”—it led to erratic flight. To rectify this, Du and his colleagues used a Linear-Quadratic Regulator to automatically adjust the parameters of the controller so it is more in tune with the custom drone it’s controlling.

If or when this system will be made available to the public has yet to be determined, but given what a hard time the FAA has had regulating standardized commercial drones, it’s safe to say it might be awhile before you, too, can build your own bunny-copter.

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