Crash-friendly drone could explore collapsed buildings

Advanced robots tend to be loaded with sensors that help them analyze their environment and avoid obstacles like walls and debris. One crash can break a robot’s parts and end its mission, so the sensors play an important role in planning a cautious route.

Gimball, a drone built by researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, doesn’t have any sensors to prevent it from damaging itself. Instead, it flies in an elastic cage and bounces wildly from obstacle to obstacle, allowing the cage to absorb the shock of each hit.

“Flying insects handle collisions quite well. For them, shocks aren’t really accidents, because they’re designed to bounce back from them,” PhD student Adrien Briod said in a release. “This is the direction we decided to take in our research.”

Gimball drone

EPFL has built crash-happy drones before, but Gimball is the lightest and first spherical bot it has built to date. It is also the first with the ability to stabilize itself after each collision.

“The idea was for the robot’s body to stay balanced after a collision, so that it can keep to its trajectory,” Briod said in the release. “Its predecessors, which weren’t stabilized, tended to take off in random directions after impact.”

Gimball is built to go into dangerous locations that are difficult for humans to reach. Places like remote forests and collapsed buildings tend to have a lot of obstacles, making them tricky to navigate even for robots. Gimball can also fly through smoke, which can thwart the mapping system of other robots.

The EPFL researchers will present the robot November 5-9 at the IREX conference in Tokyo. While they are pleased with Gimball’s weight, which is just under a pound, and length of 13 inches, they say they won’t be satisfied until it can compete with a live insect.