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MIT researchers develop system that lets you customize and test your own drones

Luke Dormehl

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Do you know what’s better than owning your own drone? Designing and owning your own drone.

That’s what a new project created by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — within its Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) — allows users to do. The project operates courtesy of a system which makes it possible to vary the size, shape, and structure of drones, based on your own personal requirements.

“To our knowledge, this the first system that allows non-experts to design and build their own custom drone,” PhD student Tao Du, first author on the paper, told Digital Trends. “The interface allows you to enter your specific needs for things like payload, cost, and battery usage, and the system then creates a novel size, shape and structure for the drone that ensures that it is functional and fabricable.”

The idea, he said, is to change drone design from its current one-size-fits-all approach to a manufacturing process offering infinite possibilities. This isn’t a modular drone kit, however, so much as it is a smart design tool which combines user specifications with automated calculations to help bring your dream drone to life.

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For example, it analyzes metrics such as torque and thrust to optimize a solution that will work as well as possible. Once a drone has been designed, users can then simulate a virtual flight with it, before deciding whether or not to go ahead with a build.

To demonstrate the work, the researchers created a variety of quirky drones, including a five-rotor “pentacopter” and a rabbit-shaped “bunnycopter.”

“Companies like Amazon and Google that are developing delivery drones might be interested in a system like this that lets you customize drones for different purposes,” Du continued. “For example, if you want a drone to be able to carry unusually shaped objects like a long, thin antennae, you might need it to be asymmetric or to have other unconventional properties.”

“As another example, drones used for filming and photography sometimes suffer from having a rotor that gets in the way of the camera,” he continued. “But you could develop a drone with our system that ensures that the camera has a clear view and that the drone can still move efficiently.”

Sadly, there’s no word on when this tool will be released to the public, but hopefully research like this marks the beginning of more customizable drones. With any luck, we should be flying our very own bunnycopters in no time …