For decades, academic and industry researchers have been working on control algorithms for autonomous helicopters — robotic helicopters that pilot themselves, rather than requiring remote human guidance. Dozens of research teams have competed in a series of autonomous-helicopter challenges posed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI); progress has been so rapid that the last two challenges have involved indoor navigation without the use of GPS.

But MIT’s Robust Robotics Group — which fielded the team that won the last AUVSI contest — has set itself an even tougher challenge: developing autonomous-control algorithms for the indoor flight of GPS-denied airplanes.

Other than some decals and a few extra antennas, there's nothing outwardly remarkable about the white Audi TTS zipping around the track at Thunderhill Raceway, north of Sacramento, Calif. Its tires squeal as it zigs through chicanes. Its engine growls as it tops 120 mph on the straights. The car gets around the 3-mile course in less than 2-1/2 minutes, a time that rivals those posted by professional drivers.

What is remarkable about this car is its driver: There isn't one.

In some isolated clinics in parts of Africa, the electricity needed to power lights and medical devices is generated by expensive imported diesel fuel; the water supply can be so cold in winter that health workers can’t even wash their hands properly. But a startup company established by a team of MIT students and alumni aims to change that.

The patented technology they developed uses a mirrored parabolic trough to capture sunlight, heating fluid in a pipe along the mirror’s centerline. This fluid then powers a sort of air conditioner in reverse: Instead of using electricity to pump out cold air on one side and hot air on the other, it uses the hot fluid and cold air to generate electricity. At the same time, the hot fluid can be used to provide heat and hot water — or, by adding a separate chiller stage, to produce cooling as well.

Earthworms creep along the ground by alternately squeezing and stretching muscles along the length of their bodies, inching forward with each wave of contractions. Snails and sea cucumbers also use this mechanism, called peristalsis, to get around, and our own gastrointestinal tracts operate by a similar action, squeezing muscles along the esophagus to push food to the stomach.

Now researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Seoul National University have engineered a soft autonomous robot that moves via peristalsis, crawling across surfaces by contracting segments of its body, much like an earthworm. The robot, made almost entirely of soft materials, is remarkably resilient: Even when stepped upon or bludgeoned with a hammer, the robot is able to inch away, unscathed.

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This news service is provided by Good Samaritan Institute, located in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.

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