A world full of flying cars certainly sounds like an impossible dream, but if it did happen, wouldn't it be nice for them to fly automatically to boot? It'd be either that, or we'll all have to get pilots licenses. Carnegie Mellon is indeed working on a system to have cars fly themselves, but not just any soaring car — DARPA's Transformer.
Carnegie Mellon University, best known for the advancements in robotics it pushes out, has been given a $988,000 contract by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an autonomous flight system over the next 17 months.
For as wild as DARPA's Transformer vehicle sounds, the agency has been steadily lining up all the pieces to make it a reality. What's envisioned is a vehicle that bridges the gap between a helicopter and a Humvee, being able to roll along like a jeep yet spring into the air with vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) capabilities. The ability to pilot itself is seen as a new crucial piece of the puzzle as DARPA wants it so that any grunt could take the helm instead of a pilot, which means the Transformer would have to be automated or very simple to fly.
More than that, though, the Transformer needs enough situational awareness to navigate a combat zone, meaning it wouldn't want to touch down in the middle of an enemy squad or fail to take evasive maneuvers against an incoming projectile. Flexibility is also key, as DARPA plans for the vehicle to perform all manner of roles from ferrying troops and supplies to stealthily delivering a group of covert operatives.
It's all very daunting, but it sounds like the CMU team is up to muster. Robotics professor Sanjiv Singh, one of the researchers on the project, is no stranger to autonomous flight, according to PhysOrg:
Singh applied expertise in robotic perception and planning to demonstrate a fully autonomous helicopter flying in between wires, trees and buildings in DARPA's Organic Air Vehicle II (OAV2) Program and, working with Piasecki Aircraft earlier this year, demonstrated that a full-size helicopter could avoid low altitude obstacles, select a landing site and land without human input.
All this when just yesterday we were wondering if the inevitable, large-scale control automation of military hardware was right around the corner.