26 May 2020 
15 May 2019

New foldable drone flies through narrow holes

Research teams from University of Zurich and EPFL in Lausanne have developed a new drone that can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes. This is useful when searching for victims of natural disasters. Inspired by birds that fold their wings in mid-air to cross narrow passages, it can even hold and transport objects along the way.

Photo: UZHPhoto: UZH
When faced with a narrow passage, the drone can switch to the so-called „H“ shape, with all arms lined up along one axis.
“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, researcher at the University of Zurich. In comparison to other drones, this morphing drone can maneuver in tight spaces and guarantee a stable flight at all times. The scientists designed a quadrotor with four propellers that rotate independently, mounted on mobile arms that can fold around the main frame thanks to 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 propellers’ thrust as the center of gravity shifts.

“The morphing drone can adopt different configurations according to what is needed in the field,” adds Stefano Mintchev, researcher at EPFL in Lausanne. 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 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. 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. In the future, the researchers hope to further improve the drone structure so that it can fold in all three dimensions. Most importantly, they want to develop algorithms that will make the drone truly autonomous, allowing it to look for passages in a real disaster scenario and automatically choose 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.



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