New ‘foldable’ drone will transform rescue missions in the future

Foldable drone can change shape to squeeze through passageways
Photo courtesy of UZH

We have all been there: You are conducting a life-or-death rescue mission but you find yourself SOL because your drone is too large to fit through small openings. The people trapped resort to cannibalism. Someone from Twitter sends a mini-submarine for some reason. The whole mission is compromised.

That was the situation so many of us found ourselves in. Thankfully, the quandary of small, inflexible drones could be a thing of the past.

A Drone Modeled After Birds

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of Zurich unveiled a “foldable drone.” The drone takes its cues from birds who have to compress their bodies mid-flight to fit through openings.

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The new, foldable drone contains four propellers surrounding the main body. The arms holding the propeller are able to shift into three different configurations depending on the environment it has to navigate. There’s a “T” shape that brings the drone closer to items to inspect them. Then there’s an “H” shape that makes the drone more slender. Finally, there’s an “O” shape that can fit through narrow passages.

The drone is capable of switching to these configurations mid-flight while still maintaining stability. Moreover, the drone can transform into a number of asymmetrical shapes. The drone carries two cameras and an onboard camera to help rescue workers.

“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,” says University of Zurich researcher Davide Falanga.

Autonomy the Next Step

While a foldable drone of this size is an advancement in drone technology, researchers hope to develop an autonomous drone. Rendering the drone autonomous would mean that in a real disaster scenario, the drone could search for appropriate passages in damaged buildings or compromised areas and select the best paths to search for people.

“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.

While the foldable drones are still very much in the development phase, one’s mind can only wonder what foldable drones could mean for, say, something like drone delivery services.

Autonomous rescue missions are imminent, but Jeff Bezos flying a foldable drone down your chimney may also be on the horizon.