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Flying Planes With An iPhone

MIT, Boeing make it happen with wireless-controlled UAVs

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Flying Planes With An iPhone
[ Technology]

I guess all that time spent playing Cube Runner could prove useful after all.

An associate professor of aeronautics and her students at MIT have developed a system for controlling small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with your basic iPhone. Professor Missy Cummings and her class teamed up with Boeing’s research and development center in Seattle to pilot a small UAV with a few twists and turns of an Apple smartphone.

And it’s not your typical remote controlled plane. During the test, the controller was in Seattle while the UAV was buzzing around a football field at MIT campus – about 2,500 miles apart. Here’s how it works, according to Cummings –

“We’ve set the system up so that the iPhone connects into the cell network through a Wi-Fi hotspot capability, and on the other end, the vehicle is hooked up to a ground station that’s also hooked into a wireless hotspot. So the vehicle and the iPhone are then communicating over the internet, and this allows us to send whatever commands we want.”

The iPhone controls the UAV in two ways. First, the “pilot” can set location points on a map, and direct the plane to fly to that spot. Or, in a more awesome video game-like fashion, the pilot can use a built in camera to fly the plane manually, simply by tilting the iPhone to signal the desired direction. Check it out in action:

One of the goals of the project is to create a system that is easy to learn. This system is so intuitive, it can be mastered in a matter of minutes.

Cummings, who directs the Humans and Automation Lab at MIT, focuses her research on how to make control systems that are easy for people to learn and use. In principle, she says, the control system she and her team have created for smartphones could be used to control any aircraft, even a jumbo jet. In practice, it could easily replace the control systems not only for military drones, but for UAVs used by emergency personnel: for example, to track the progress of a forest fire in a remote area from a safe distance.

What do you think about the possibility of an iPhone piloting a jet? Let us know in the comments.

Flying Planes With An iPhone
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