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MIT drones fly a little like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia

Researchers with a droneJonathan How/MIT

Remember those “speeder bikes” that Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia raced through the forest in “Return of the Jedi,” miraculously weaving through trees while the stormtroopers chasing them crashed?

MIT says it’s working on drones that can do similar feats — and they won’t even need the Force.

The university says researchers in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have developed a system that allows drones to fly at 20 miles per hour through “dense environments” like forests and warehouses.

The researchers developed a new system called NanoMap. Unlike current approaches that rely on intricate maps to tell drones where they are relative to obstacles, the new system is more aware of uncertainty and adjusts for it, the university said.


“Overly confident maps won’t help you if you want drones that can operate at higher speeds in human environments,” graduate student Pete Florence said in a university statement. “An approach that is better aware of uncertainty gets us a much higher level of reliability in terms of being able to fly in close quarters and avoid obstacles.”

Florence is the lead author of a paper on the research that has been accepted to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, which takes place in May in Brisbane, Australia.

The team suggests that the system could be used in fields from search-and-rescue and national defense to package delivery — and, yes, entertainment. A sample drone video provided by MIT looks like it was taken from a speeder bike.

And here’s the gold standard: A glimpse of the speeder bike scene from the “Return of the Jedi” trailer.

Martin Finucane can be reached at