There is only so much that we can do by updating the control algorithms for existing vehicles. To truly achieve break-through performance, or be able to operate in the most challenging environments, requires that we investigate the design of the vehicles in conjunction with their control.
We have investigated various different design directions for aerial robots. A first direction considers morphing vehicles — inspired by birds that change their shape in flight to fit through their environment, we created a drone that can fold its arms back, allowing it to fit through narrow gaps; but also e.g. carry boxes!
We are also interested in vehicles that can survive collisions. Rather than relying on complex sensing and planning to avoid collisions, what possibilities are afforded by vehicles that can collide without any serious consequences? Our design uses a tensegrity frame, a structure where all members are purely under compression or tension loading (i.e., no bending moments where things can snap off). The result is a mechanically very resilient design, that has low overall mass.
Another novel design includes the use of an added flywheel on a multicopter (conceptually somewhat like a dual-spin spacecraft). This endows the vehicle with a large source of angular momentum, allowing it to maintain its thrust direction better than a comparable standard multicopter.
Another challenge for existing systems is operating in cluttered environments. Typical aerial robots are incapable of varying their shape mid-flight, due to the added complexity and mass that this would entail. We have proposed a design that allows a multicopter to passively change its shape, thus not requiring any actuators beyond those already present, and resulting in a vehicle retaining the beneficial characteristics of a multicopter, but able to modify its shape in response to operational requirements:
We have also done some initial work on vehicles that can operate reliably both underwater and in the air. We call it the UAUV, “Unmanned Aerial Underwater Vehicle” —
In collaboration with the ETH Zurich, we have also developed systems capable of flight with as few as a single moving part: the Monospinner. This is arguably the world’s most mecahnically simple controllable, flight-capable machine.