Drones are amazing and cool and powerful, but traditionally they can be thwarted by an impenetrable obstacle that has vexed drone creators and pilots for years: doors. Because, you know, drones crash into doors. But scientists at Stanford University and the EPFL (and that would be École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, an engineering research institute funded by the Swiss government) have built a micro-drone that can open doors and move objects 40 times their own weight.
They catchily call it the FlyCroTug.
Like many complex robots, the FlyCroTug’s abilities are rooted in the natural world. Its creators were inspired by the common wasp’s ability to transport heavy items across great distances.
“Wasps can fly rapidly to a piece of food, and then if the thing’s too heavy to take off with, they drag it along the ground. So this was sort of the beginning inspiration for the approach we took,” Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering at Stanford, said in a statement.
While studying the wasp’s ratio of flight-related muscle to its total mass, Cutkosky and the rest of the team determined that any drone designed to imitate the insect would need multiple carrying options. The FlyCroTug has three: winches, gecko grippers, and microspines.
The gecko grippers are based on the eponymous animal and are perfectly designed (thanks, nature!) for handling or grasping a smooth surface like glass. Its 32 microspines are inspired by the spines that run up and down insect legs and can hook into bumpy surfaces. Finally, the robo-wasp has a winch to drag its haul home.
Dario Floreano, a professor of robotics at EPFL and the senior author of the study published about the FlyCroTug, describes the mechanisms this way:
“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world, but flying insects do many other things—such as walking, climbing, grasping, building—and social insects can even cooperate to multiply forces. With this work, we show that small drones capable of anchoring to the environment and collaborating with fellow drones can perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”
Those tasks include opening a door. During a proof-0f-concept experiment, one drone wrapped itself around a handle and another pulled on the door. The tandem was able to lower the handle and open a door together.
The next step for the scientists is to improve the drones’ ability to work together. Swarms of animal-inspired drones, including the Siemens spider drone and MIT’s flying monkey, are seen as strong options for collaborative projects.
“The tools to create vehicles like this are becoming more accessible,” says Matthew Estrada, a graduate student at Stanford who worked on the FlyCroTugs. “I’m excited at the prospect of increasingly incorporating these attachment mechanisms into the designer’s tool belt, enabling robots to take advantage of interaction forces with their environment and put these to useful ends.”
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics