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MIT researchers have created flying drones that can recharge on power lines rather than returning to base when they run out of batteries

You glance up at high-tension power lines while driving along the highway. You spot ominous black shapes perched on the cables, perfectly spaced apart. A murder of crows, you think, until they all suddenly fly up in formation over the road. That’s no flock … it’s a fleet!

Groups of flying drones controlled together can perform amazing tasks, from heavy lifting and large-area reconnaissance to performance art. While networked together they can do incredible things, but are limited by battery technology: eventually, the juice will run out.

However, if they could recharge in the field, unmanned aerial vehicles could have drastically increased mission scope and duration. Recharging from power lines was considered technically possible, but unlikely due to the precision required for a perch, especially when traveling at high speeds. Until now.

Three MIT researchers, inspired by birds, have figured out a way (PDF) for very simple fixed-wing aircraft to rapidly decelerate using drag and perch on a thin wire. Using the power lines’ magnetic field, the drone targets the perch and performs a rapid stalling maneuver right before hitting it, slowing its speed and orienting a hook underneath the aircraft for capture.

The implications of a practical deployment of this technology would be huge. Small drones could fly for hours, whether they are delivering medicine, monitoring environmental conditions or searching for bad guys.

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