Origami-inspired drone snaps open to take flight

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Once fired up, the power of the drone's rotors force the arms into position in one third of a second(Credit: École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne)

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Micro-drones may be versatile in the air, but carry one in your pocket or bag and you run the risk of damaging its propellers. While carry cases are available for a number of models, some are catering to the micro-drone class with arms that fold away for safe storage. Two Swiss roboticists are the latest to take this approach, with a palm-sized quadcopter that spreads its wings and springs to life in less than a second.

Developed at Swizterland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), researchers built this teeny drone's arms according to an origami technique. This allows it to remain compact with an arm wrapped around each side of its trapezoid body until it is ready to be flown.

Once fired up, the power of its rotors then force the fibreglass and light inelastic polyester arms to extend outwards into their natural position. This enables the propellors to spin freely and for the drone to take off, with small magnets holding everything in place. The really impressive thing here is that the process is automatic and happens in the blink of an eye (one third of a second, to be precise).

At present, the machine is simply a proof of concept. The researchers say that the easily carried drones could one day find applications in disaster zones, as swarms of them are transported and released over the area to put tiny recon cameras buzzing through the sky in the blink of an eye.

In its current form, the drone still needs to folded up manually when it is finished flying, though the researchers say this takes less than 10 seconds after a bit of practice. They now have plans to develop a self-folding version, reduce the drone's weight and reinforce its arms for better durability.

Other folding drones to cross our desk recently include the Anura drone concept, a smartphone-shaped vehicle with arms that snap inside its body, and the three-armed GoPro-toting Pocket Drone.

The Swiss researchers say their origami-inspired folding technique could even be applied to other types of flying machines. They will showcase the drone at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Seattle on May 25.

You can see it in action in the video below.

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