The Japanese Ministry of Defense (JMD) got the ball rolling, as it were, in 2011 when it unveiled its spherical air vehicle, which was followed by the Kyosho Space Ball and Puzzlebox Orbit in 2012. Now researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have got in on the act with Gimball, a flying robot that takes crashing into obstacles in its stride.
Developed by Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski and Adrien Briod from EPFL's Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS), the Gimball prototype ditches the complex and heavy network of sensors most flying robots use to map a clear flight path for a spherical, elastic cage that allows it to bounce back from impacts and continue on its way.
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Unlike the JMD's air vehicle, whose body is rigidly fixed to the exterior sphere, the Gimball features a double carbon-fiber ring that passively rotates in the event of a collision to allow the robot's gyroscopically stabilized body to stay vertically oriented. This allows it to quickly recover from impacts, a capability that was inspired by insects.
"Flying insects handle collisions quite well," says Briod. "For them, shocks aren't really accidents, because they're designed to bounce back from them. This is the direction we decided to take in our research."
The Gimball prototype has undergone testing in a Swiss pine forest. Weighing just 370 g (13 oz) and fitted only with a compass and an altitude sensor for navigation, the robot was able to maintain its course over several hundred meters while crashing into several trees along the way.
Like other spherical flying robots that are designed to operate where other robots can't, the Gimball has potential in exploration and search and rescue operations. The robot is fitted with a camera, which isn't used for navigation, but to relay images back to emergency personnel.
Gimball will make its first public appearance at the IREX conference being held in Tokyo from November 5 to 9, 2013, but can be seen in action in the following video.