Robot ‘copter does the splits

A model helicopter developed by MIT researchers has performed a complex manoeuvre never before performed autonomously by a helicopter.

The X-Cell 60 helicopter rolled 180 degrees, flew upside-down for an instant, then completed a half-loop to end up flying upright in the opposite direction. This manoeuvre, called a split-S, allows an aircraft to reverse direction quickly in a horizontally confined space. It is one of a variety of aggressive, agile manoeuvres that the next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be expected to perform in military combat.

‘It’s the most complex manoeuvre ever completed automatically by any helicopter,’ said Eric Feron, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and a researcher in the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems who leads a team of researchers in aerial robotics.

Vlad Gavrilets, the aero/astro graduate student primarily involved in the project, and colleagues spent the six months prior to the September 12 flight programming the split-S manoeuvre into the helicopter’s onboard computer and testing their results on a simulator. Late last year, they successfully demonstrated what they believe to be the first-ever autonomous manoeuvre by a helicopter: an aileron roll (a corkscrew-like manoeuvre).

Previously, such stunts required the skill of an elite pilot. The technology developed by the MIT team makes it possible for anyone to operate its aerobatic craft.

Small, agile, autonomous helicopters like MIT’s X-Cell 60 could provide a new tool for military reconnaissance or weapons delivery in mountainous, urban and other challenging terrain that’s off-limits to larger aircraft and too dangerous for manned aircraft. Their small size, operational ease and potentially low cost – in comparison with the current generation of UAVs, such as the Predator – make them especially appealing, and not just to the military. The entertainment industry could use miniature robotic rotorcraft as a new means of capturing aerial imagery.

The work is funded by DARPA, NASA and the Office of Naval Research.