This is just a good journalistic summary by IEEE Spectrum on the research posted here earlier today. (Note that the aircraft already has the map preprogrammed; it's not doing SLAM and learning the space as it flies. But still: super impressive!): Excerpt:
Two weeks ago, we posted about quadrotors that were able to autonomously navigate outdoors, relying solely on IMUs and simple vision systems. What we found notable was that the robots didn’t need either GPS or a motion tracking system, implying that they could go out and do their thing in what some people like to call “the real world.” At ICRA 2012 yesterday, MIT’s Adam Bry presented a paper (and video!) demonstrating a micro air vehicle capable of the same sort of self-contained navigation, but indoors and impressively fast.
The background here is that whenever we see “aggressivemaneuvering” by an aerial vehicle, there’s almost always a motion tracking system involved to provide constant feedback as to the exact location of said vehicle. There’s nothing reallywrong with that (besides that it’s sort of cheating), but practical applications are limited since you’ll never get it to work outside of your lab. On the other hand, when you get autonomous aircraft navigating around outside on their own, they’re either moving very slowly, or their owners have taken care to set them loose as far away as possible from anything that they might accidentally smash into.
Researchers at MIT CSAIL have decided that slow and obstacle-free flight is boring, so they’ve come up with a way to get MAVs navigating at high speed, indoors, around obstacles, without needing motion tracking or GPS or beacons or any of that nonsense. All they need is a little aircraft that can carry a planar laser rangefinder, an IMU, and a pre-existing 3D occupancy map that the MAV can localize itself in, and you get results like this (the good bits are towards the end):
More from the MIT group here.