Drone innovations: Next gen quadcopters fold, crash, recover

Safety and ease-of-use are driving drone innovation. These cool quadcopters can take whatever users can dish out, and that makes them attractive for some rough-and-tumble applications.

Next week's ICRA conference in Seattle will feature the latest in robotics and automation research from around the globe. Once again, aerial robotics will be a category to watch. Drones have already made the transition from specialized use to mass market applications, and with the underlying technology maturing, new concepts are emerging that herald the next generation of unmanned flying machines. NCCR Robotics, a consortium of robotics research institutions in Switzerland, is driving many of the advances by partnering with academic research groups.

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One collaboration with the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS) at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, a university in Switzerland, led to new concept for an origami quadcopter that folds up. Folding drones already exist, like DJI's Spreading Wings series, and others come with readily detachable arms, but current concepts require user manipulation in order to ready the vehicles for deployment. That isn't ideal in cases where several drones have to be deployed quickly or where drones are operated by users with minimal training, which is often the case in emergency response and disaster recovery situations (read: "Disaster robots slow to gain acceptance from responders").

LIS, in collaboration with NCCR, a Swiss robotics consortium, developed a self-deploying drone that transitions from a small stowed state to its ready-to-use state in 0.3 seconds. The system employs a series of magnets to hold the stowed arms in place, reducing the drone's size by about 1/3. When the drone is activated and the propellers begin spinning, the torque breaks the magnetic attraction and the arms swing out automatically.

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A startup called Flyability, which spun off from another NCCR-LIS collaboration, recently won the UAE Drones For Good competition. Sometimes called the World Cup of Drones, the competition seeks to advance drone developments that can improve people's lives. The team created an aerial robot that is designed to survive in-flight collisions with fixed objects. One of the weaknesses of all quadcopters is their inherent fragility in flight. A damaged prop or appendage can easily cause a drone to lose control, which that can mean the loss of the system and a potential hazard for people on the ground.

Flyability's solution is The Gimball, which uses a rotating gimbal system and protective wire cage to encase rotors. Video of the drone in action suggests several possible uses, including locating victims after disasters or performing industrial inspections in tight areas where traditional drones are at risk.

One of the centerpieces of ongoing licensure debates in aerial robotics concerns the amount of training that should be required of pilots. At issue, in addition to privacy and air traffic concerns, is the increased likelihood that unskilled pilots will crash their drones or maneuver them out of range, resulting in fly-aways that imperil bystanders on the ground.

NCCR worked with the Robotics and Perception group at the University of Zurich to create a system that automatically recovers and stabilizes UAVs after a critical condition, such as the loss of a GPS signal. The technology uses a camera, an inertial measurement unit, and a distance sensor to emulate the human visual system and sense of balance. The result is a drone that can be tossed in the air and can be programmed to recognize visual landmarks and its own inertia to restore balance.

Video of the researchers tossing their sensor equipped drones into the air suggests that the system can be adapted for collision recovery. All of this adds up to increased safety in a world where drones are becoming more useful and prolific.

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