Researchers from University of Zurich have created a new type of foldable drone that can also change its shape in mid-air. Inspired by birds that fold their wings in mid-air to cross narrow passages, the drone can also squeeze itself to pass through narrow gaps and then go back to its original shape while flying.
The drone can maneuver in tight spaces while guaranteeing a stable flight at all times. It also has the ability to hold and transport objects along its way. Lead author Davide Falanga said, “Our solution is quite simple from a mechanical point of view, but it is very versatile and very autonomous, with onboard perception and control systems”
The teams first designed a quadrotor with four propellers that rotate independently, mounted on mobile arms that can fold around the main frame due to the servo-motors. The ace in the hole is a control system that adapts in real time to any new position of the arms, adjusting the thrust of the propellers as the center of gravity shifts.
Co-author Stefano Mintchev said, “The morphing drone can adopt different configurations according to what is needed in the field.” The usual configuration is X-shaped with four arms stretched out and the propellers at the widest possible distance from each other.
In case of a narrow passage, the drone switches to a H-shape with all arms lined up along one axis, or to a O-shape with all arms folded as close as possible to the body. The drone can also form a T-shape to bring the onboard camera mounted on the central frame as close as possible to objects that the drone needs to inspect.
For future, the researchers wish to further enhance the drone structure so that it can fold in all three dimensions. Also, they hope to develop algorithms that will make the drone completely autonomous, allowing it to look for passages in a real disaster scenario and also automatically choosing the best way to pass through them.
“The final goal is to give the drone a high-level instruction such as ‘enter that building, inspect every room and come back’ and let it figure out by itself how to do it,” says Falanga.