Small drone

Foldable drone created to assist in rescue missions

Image credit: Pixabay

Researchers from the University of Zurich (UZH) have developed an unmanned aircraft that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small enough to fit through narrow gaps and holes – a device which could help in searching for victims of natural disasters.

Inspired by birds that fold their wings in mid-air to cross narrow passages, a team from UZH’s Robotics and Perception Group, in collaboration with Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) created a drone that can squeeze through narrow gaps and return to its original shape, all the while continuing to fly.

“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,” explains Davide Falanga, a researcher at the university. Also, in comparison to other drones, this morphing drone can manoeuvre in tight spaces and guarantees a continuous stable flight, according to Falanga.

The scientists designed what they call a “morphing quadrotor” which has four propellers that rotate independently. These propellers are mounted on mobile arms that can fold around the mainframe of the aircraft. It also has a control system that adapts in real time to any new position of the arms, adjusting the thrust of the propellers as the centre of gravity shifts.

Stefano Mintchev, co-author and researcher at the EPFL School of Engineering said: “The morphing drone can adopt different configurations according to what is needed in the field. The standard configuration is X-shaped, with the four arms stretched out and the propellers at the widest possible distance from each other.”

“When faced with a narrow passage, the drone can switch to an ‘H’ shape, with all arms lined up along one axis, or to an ‘O shape, with all arms folded as close as possible to the body. A ‘T shape can be used to bring the onboard camera mounted on the central frame as close as possible to objects that the drone needs to inspect.”

The researchers from the collaborative project are hoping to improve the drone’s structure, developing technology that will allow it to fold in three dimensions.

Furthermore, they aim to develop algorithms that will make the drone fully autonomous, allowing it to look for passages in a real disaster scenario and automatically choose the best way to pass through them, with Falanga adding, “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.”

In October, a Chinese company tested the world’s largest cargo drone, which was said to carry a payload of 1.5 tonnes (1,360kg).

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