Foldable Drone Could Help Find Survivors Of Natural Disasters

The new drone can retract its propeller arms in flight and make itself small to fit through narrow gaps and holes.

Inspecting a damaged building after an earthquake or during a fire has always been a massive struggle for rescue crews.

Holes in walls or gaps in the rubble aren't always safe enough for humans, or big enough for robots to get through.

But a group of researchers from the University of Zurich have created a drone that can change its shape and size to squeeze through previously inaccessible spaces to look for people trapped inside and guide the rescue team towards them.

The Foldable Drone: A Morphing Quadrotor that can Squeeze and Fly  IMAGE: YouTube/ailabRPG

The design was inspired by birds that fold their wings in mid-air to get through gaps.

Basically, scientists created what they call a "morphing quadrator" which has four propellers that rotate independently.

They are mounted on movable arms that can fold around the body of the drone. While the standard configuration is the 'X' shape, the arms can move to an "H", "O" AND "T" shape as well.

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The drone also has a control system that adapts in real time to any new arm position, adjusting the thrust of the propellers as the center of gravity shifts.

It allows the drone to change shape and stay stable as it flies. It can even hold and transport objects along the way.

Destruction following the earthquake on October 10, 2018 in Palu, Indonesia. More than 1200 died. IMAGE: Getty

"Our solution is quite simple from a mechanical point of view, but it is very versatile and very autonomous, with on board perception and control systems," explains Davide Falanga, researcher at the University of Zurich and the paper's first author.

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There's a lot more work to be done on the drone, researches are hoping to improve the structure so all three dimensions can fold. They also want to make the aircraft completely autonomous.

"The final goal is to give the drone a high-level instruction such as 'enter that building, inspect every room and come back' and let it figure out by itself how to do it," said Stefano Mintchev, co-author and researcher at EPFL.

So, watch this space.

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Featured Image: University of Zurich