Folding drone tucks up tight to fly through small spaces

Anyone who has ever stood in the woods and watched birds as they fly through the trees can see that birds tuck their wings tight to their bodies to be able to fly through small spaces and gaps in limbs. Researchers at the University of Zurich and EPFL have developed a new drone that can make itself smaller to fit through tight spaces mimicking birds in the wild.

Once the drone makes it through the tight space, it goes back to its previous shape. Researcher Davide Falanga says that the solution his team came up with is simple from a mechanical point of view, but is versatile and "very autonomous" with onboard perception and control systems. The design is a quadrotor drone with propellers that rotate independently.

The propellers are mounted on movable arms that can fold around the frame using servo motors. A key component of the drone is that it has a control system that can adjust the thrust of the propellers to control the aircraft as the center of gravity shifts.

The standard configuration for the drone is an "X" shape with four arms stretched out and propellers at the widest configuration. When the drone encounters a narrow passage, it switches to an "H" shape with arms along one axis or into an "O" shape with all arms as close as possible to the body.

The drone also supports a "T" shape configuration meant to get the onboard camera as close to objects as possible. The team hopes to improve the drone structure to allow it to fold in all three dimensions and to develop algorithms that make it completely autonomous in the future. The team wants to be able to issue a high-level command, such as "search that building" and have the drone complete the task on its own.