Folding drone flies into tight spaces

by Mary Caperton Morton
Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A new drone can fold itself to squeeze through gaps and then return to its previous shape, all while continuing to fly. Credit: UZH.

Drones can go many places humans can’t, and a new foldable drone is squeezing into even tighter, more dangerous places than ever before. Inspired by birds that can fold their wings in midair to fly through cramped spaces, researchers have created a drone that can fold into various configurations while maintaining stable flight.

“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,” said Davide Falanga of the University of Zurich in a statement. The drone has four propellers that can move and rotate independently of one another. The propellers are mounted on mobile arms that fold around the central frame to change shape from the standard X shape.

In an H-shaped configuration, for example, the arms line up along one axis to fit through narrow passages, while in an O-shape, all the arms fold close to the body. A T-shaped configuration is used to position a camera mounted to the central frame closer to an object for inspection. But the real breakthrough of the versatile design, the team wrote in a paper describing the technology in IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters, is the control system that adjusts the thrust of the propellers as the drone’s center of gravity shifts with each configuration, maintaining stable flight.

The mobile arms of the drone can fold from the standard X configuration (top left) into (clockwise from top right) H, O and T shapes as well. Credit: all: UZH.

The drone may prove useful in searching tight spaces, such as in collapsed buildings after earthquakes. “The final goal,” Falanga said, “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.”

© 2008-2021. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the expressed written permission of the American Geosciences Institute is expressly prohibited. Click here for all copyright requests.