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A shape-shifting drone suggests the future of rescue missions

Image: University of Zurich

A new kind of drone has been designed to fold up its arms and squeeze into tight spots, potentially to scout around on rescue missions. Researchers from the University of Zurich developed a drone with four arms that can retract while flying to fit into gaps and holes. The goal is to send drones where humans can’t go and make it easier to locate victims in a collapsed building in the event of an earthquake or fire.

To some extent, these types of rescue drones already exist, but they are sometimes too large and oblong-shaped to fit into most openings, like a crack in the wall or through fallen bars. The researchers say their new drone’s shape-shifting abilities were inspired by the movement of birds. When faced with a narrow entrance, it adopts an H-formation with its arms lined up along one axis. If the hole is a tight oval, it moves into a small O shape, with all its arms folded close to its body to clear the obstacle. It can also shift into a T shape to position one of its two onboard cameras as close to an object as possible in order to inspect it. Beyond those basic formations, the drone can also twist into a variety of asymmetrical shapes.

In its current form, the drone has an onboard computer, two cameras, and four arms. It has some ability to judge a situation for itself, but commanding it at a high level to enter a building and check every room is still not yet possible. Researchers plan to develop algorithms to help the drone achieve full autonomy as well as ways to make the drone fold in 3D.

Beyond implications for rescue missions, scientists and video buffs alike could make much use of a self-flying AI drone capable of avoiding obstacles and folding into three-dimensional shapes. The Skydio R1, for instance, shoots in 4K and can avoid trees as it flies down a path, but imagine if it could also fold itself to be smaller. Of course, there are also some potential opportunities for misuse, as a tiny, foldable drone could also just as likely be sent to spy in small crevices. For now, the researchers are still in their development phase, and aren’t planning to deploy the drones in any real mission yet.