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Circuit Breaker

Wibbly wobbly quadcopters take a bashing and keep on flying

Of all of the weird and wonderful ways nature creates resilient bodies, perhaps the most underappreciated is simply being so squidgy your problems just bounce off you. Well, a group of biomimicry researchers from Swiss university EPFL are taking note, and have created a soft, crash-proof drone modeled after the flexible bodies of insects.

According to IEEE Spectrum, the scientists were inspired by a unique joint found in wasp wings. These joints allow the creatures’ wings to stay stiff during flight, but “reversibly crumple” in the case of a crash — saving the thin membranes from tearing. The EPFL researchers didn’t copy this system exactly for their quadcopters, but paired a flexible external frame with a magnetic coupling system that joins the frame to the central body. In the event of a crash the body pops out of the frame before clicking back into place.

The foam arms of the drone are attached via a magnetic joint to the central body.
Image: EPFL

“The uniqueness of the proposed design lies in the fact that the frame is rigid during flight, but softens during collisions,” wrote the researchers in a paper published in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. “This allows combination of the advantages of both rigid and soft systems: stability and rapid response to user commands during flight [and] crash resilience like a soft system.”

The test drone withstood 50 crashes with no permanent damage. The researchers say one main benefit of their system (apart from durability) is keeping humans safe from drone crashes. Elsewhere in drone academia, researchers at Virginia Tech are finding out exactly what happens when those crashes take place: