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A group of German engineers have managed to get an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to autonomously land on a car travelling at 75 km/h. To prevent damage to the car or the 20 kg UAV, the car’s roof was fitted with a large roof rack, equipped with an elastic net.

To achieve this first of a kind accomplishment, engineers from the German Aerospace Centre placed a number of optical markers on the landing platform. These allowed the UAV’s tracking system to synchronise its speed and direction with the car’s, and safely perform the landing manoeuvre. The UAV managed to navigate to the landing position with an accuracy of 50 cm. The whole operation was managed by a computer running a set of specially written algorithms.

The experiment, that was carried out at a Bavarian airfield, required a human driver to control the car based on instruction from the computer. In the future, such manoeuvres could be performed by a driverless car and a fully autonomous UAV, with no human intervention.

This feat is no simple party trick. The team first began developing their method in order to allow aircraft to land without landing gear. The particular interest was in solar-powered planes that are used to survey the stratosphere. For these applications, every gram matters, and the weight of landing gear can seriously limit a mission. Without landing gear, these research planes could be equipped with more scientific instruments and stay airborne for longer periods of time.

The applications for this type of technology are varied, and could benefit many types of unmanned aircraft. It is easier to land this way in crosswind conditions, and a UAV equipped to land in this manner would be less dependent on weather conditions.