The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Langley Research Centers has taken on the challenge of using drones in GPS-deprived environments, so it gathered a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to help find a solution for that problem. Those MIT students came back to NASA with a plan for a fleet of drones that can autonomously fly through a thickly vegetated forest, communicate with one another and create a 3-D map of the environment without hitting a tree or using any GPS. How? The drones have onboard laser-range finders for positioning and planning their routes as they pilot themselves. The technique is called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) which creates algorithms to guide the drones and map efficiently while also avoiding re-mapping already covered area. The data that is captured is sent back to a base station via WiFi where all the drones’ maps are stitched together into one comprehensive map.

One of the main goals of this group of MIT student researchers is to be able to train the drone system to spot missing hikers and send coordinates to a ground station (although that type of testing has not yet been done).

What does this mean for industries using drones? Well, this could be big for the construction business. John M. Russo, a surveyor and President of the U.S. Institute of Building Documentation says that this type of drone technology could be used to automate messy plenum space surveys or for 3-D laser scans of daily construction progress with the push of a button because one of the biggest problems with drones to quickly map a building is that there is often no GPS signal inside of a building. The data that a drone could collect inside of a newly constructed building could be used for pre-bid walks.

However, WiFi was the key to this fleet of drones ability to fly through the forest and map the land below during this testing. So what about areas where there is no WiFi either? The MIT student researchers plan to test adding a transmitter to the drone so that as soon as the drones are closed enough they can detect one another and establish a communication link to collaborate. This is another example of how drones are being used to collect new kinds of data to solve many different problems.