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This drone swarm spray painted a jumbo-size graffiti mural

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It’s Friday, so why not watch some good old-fashioned drone-powered graffiti? A design firm in Italy has put together a lovely little show that collected sketches from the art community and put them all together in a giant mural, painted over 12 hours by a team of drones.

We’ve seen spray-painting drones before, of course, but this is far better than the crude vandalism of a fashion billboard or even Disney’s more structured wall drawings. These drones actually put together something worth looking at!

The Urban Flying Opera project was curated by Carlo Ratti Associati, which collected some 1,200 small illustrations via an app, selecting 100 to assemble into a single mural. The line drawings were then loaded into a central control computer and painting instructions relayed to a set of four drones equipped with paint cans, which worked over a 12-hour period to put the whole thing together.

drones paintingufo drones

Each drone, provided by Tsuru Robotics (it’s partly a promotion for the company) was operating as part of a whole, with multiple position monitoring systems making sure they didn’t accidentally bump into one another. No second chances when you’re spray painting a white wall.

The mural is 46 feet wide and 39 feet tall, and each color layer, laid on separately, represents a different aspect of the community the project is trying to highlight.

“The city is an open canvas, where people can inscribe their stories in many ways. Such processes have always been happening; however, with UFO we tried to accelerate them, using drone technology to allow for a new use of painting as a means of expression,” CRA founder Carlo Ratti told New Atlas.

It’s still nowhere near the level of fidelity you see in serious graffiti and street art, but it’s clear that drone-based spray painting is becoming a viable method rather than a lark. Perhaps even future drone-based vandalism will be of higher quality!

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Watch a plane land itself truly autonomously for the first time

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A team of German researchers has created an automatic landing system for small aircraft that lets them touch down not only without a pilot, but without any of the tech on the ground that lets other planes do it. It could open up a new era of autonomous flight — and make ordinary landings safer to boot.

Now it would be natural to think that with the sophisticated autopilot systems that we have today, a plane could land itself quite easily. And that’s kind of true — but the autoland systems on full-size aircraft aren’t really autonomous. They rely on a set of radio signals emitted by stations only found at major airports: the Instrument Landing System, or ILS.

These signals tell the plane exactly where the runway is even in poor visibility, but even so an “automatic” landing is rarely done. Instead, the pilots — as they do elsewhere — use the autopilot system as an assist, in this case to help them locate the runway and descend properly. A plane can land automatically using ILS and other systems, but it’s rare and even when they do it, it isn’t truly autonomous — it’s more like the airport is flying the plane by wire.

But researchers at Technische Universität München (TUM, or think of it as Munich Tech) have created a system that can land a plane without relying on ground systems at all, and demonstrated it with a pilot on board — or rather, passenger, since he kept his hands in his lap the whole time.

The automated plane comes in for a landing.

A plane making an autonomous landing needs to know exactly where the runway is, naturally, but it can’t rely on GPS — too imprecise — and if it can’t use ILS and other ground systems, what’s left? Well, the computer can find the runway the way pilots do: with its eyes. In this case, both visible-light and infrared cameras on the nose of the plane.

TUM’s tests used a a single-passenger plane, a Diamond DA42 that the team outfitted with a custom-designed automatic control system and a computer vision processor both built for the purpose, together called C2Land. The computer, trained to recognize and characterize a runway using the cameras, put its know-how to work in May taking the plane in for a flawless landing.



As test pilot Thomas Wimmer put it in a TUM news release: “The cameras already recognize the runway at a great distance from the airport. The system then guides the aircraft through the landing approach on a completely automatic basis and lands it precisely on the runway’s centerline.”

You can see the full flight in the video below.

This is a major milestone in automated flight, since until now planes have had to rely on extensive ground-based systems to perform a landing like this one — which means automated landings aren’t currently possible at smaller airports or should something go wrong with the ILS. A small plane like this one is more likely to be at a small airport with no such system, and should a heavy fog roll in, an autoland system like this might be preferable to a pilot who can’t see in infrared.

Right now the tech is very much still experimental, not even at the level where it could be distributed and tested widely, let alone certified by aviation authorities. But the safety benefits are obvious and even as a backup or augmentation to the existing, rarely used autoland systems it would likely be a welcome addition.

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This solar array expands itself at the right temperature

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Wouldn’t it be nice to have a solar panel that’s only there when the sun shines on it? That’s the idea behind this research project, which uses shape-shifting materials to make a solar panel grow from a compressed state to an expanded one with nothing more than a change in temperature.

The flower-like prototype device is made of what’s called a “shape-memory polymer,” a material that can be shaped when cool to one form, then when heated will attempt to return to its original, natural configuration. In this case the cool form is a compressed disc, and the warm one is a much wider one.

The transition (demonstrated here in warm water for simplicity) takes less than a minute. It’s guided by a network of hinged joints, the structure of which was inspired by the children’s toy known as a Hoberman sphere, which changes from a small, spiky ball to a larger spherical one when thrown.

The cooled-down material would stay rigid during, say, deployment on a satellite. Then when the satellite enters the sun, the mechanism would bloom into the full-sized array, no power necessary. That would potentially save space on a satellite that can’t quite fit a battery or spare solar array to kick-start a larger one.

For now the transformation is one-way; the larger disc must be manually folded back into the smaller configuration — but one can imagine how once powered up, a separate mechanism could accomplish that, stowing itself away until the next chance to absorb some sunlight appears.

Don’t expect to see this on any spacecraft next year, but it’s definitely a cool (and warm) idea that could prove more than a little useful for small satellites and the like in the future. And who knows? Maybe you’ll have a garden of these little blooming arrays on your roof before that.

The research, from Caltech and ETHZ, is documented in the journal Physics Review Applied.

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