Forget about expensive obstacle avoidance systems, a team of researchers has built a prototype drone with a rubbery, flexible frame that deforms harmlessly in a crash, then snaps itself back into shape ready to fly again in an instant.
Multicopters really are one of the more significant technologies of our time. In a short time, these insanely agile, stable and inexpensive flight platforms have already made a sizeable contribution to filmmaking, agriculture and industry, as well as being a ton of fun.
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But as a system, they have a serious weakness: they're easy to crash, and they don't typically crash well. It's a tough issue to get around, so much so that some drones now ship with large prop guards, while others pack clever obstacle avoidance technology.
But a group of researchers from Floreano Lab, NCCR Robotics and EPFL has put forward another potential solution: drones with rubbery, deformable arms that attach magnetically to a central frame.
Inspired by the properties of insect wings, which are stiff in the load bearing sections but flexible at the joints, the prototype drone has proven itself very resilient, both in flying into walls and dropping from decent heights.
The drone's central case is surrounded by an external frame made from flexible fiberglass, which is highly flexible and lightweight at just 0.3 mm thick, and supports four props and motors. Flexible wiring handles the electronics, and magnetic joints and soft elastic bands connect the frame to the central case.
When the thing takes an impact, the frame magnets detach and the outer frame becomes very soft and deformable, absorbing shock from the central case and preventing permanent deformation of the arms and frame. Then, as it stops bouncing, the elastic bands pull the magnets back in line, and the drone snaps back into shape, ready to fly again - pretty much by the time it comes to rest.
We can see this kind of thing being pretty handy at the lower end of the consumer segment, for the kinds of toy drones people learn on before moving on to more expensive race quads or camera quads.
Check out the flexible drone design in the video below.