Watch this origami drone tackle a crucial problem with drone delivery

More proof that hardware is becoming increasingly elegant in the age of desktop prototyping


One of the delights of living in an age of rapid prototyping and exploding hardware development is the sheer novelty of the designs we're seeing.

This folding drone caught my eye for its elegance. It may also provide a practical solution to a vexing problem at the intersection of ecommerce, transportation, and state and municipal regulation: How can delivery by drone be made safe in densely populated urban areas?

Researchers from NCCR Robotics, and the Floreano lab at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland drew inspiration from origami and folding space shelters to create this cargo drone. Its foldaway cage helps protect bystanders and untrained operators from whirling rotors--a big concern with delivery drones.

We've seen cages around drones before. Flyability, another EPFL spinoff, offers caged drones that can be operated indoors and in restrictive spaces, such as around sensitive infrastructure.

But the cages add bulk, making the drones hard to store. Where this UAV stands out is in its ability to fold in on itself like a pocket knife, allowing it to be easily stowed.

The cage's shape is reminiscent of a paper lantern. The skeletal structure is made from carbon fibre tubes and 3D printed flexible joints. The superstructure actually allows the drone to be caught in flight. That would make it useful for emergency aid deliveries to people caught in places where landing is hard or impossible.

Currently, the prototype is able to carry a little over a pound of cargo. Swiss students have noticed it making deliveries of small items at EPFL over the summer. A larger model that will carry more than four pounds is in development.