Whether you’re a hobbyist or a researcher, drones change how we see the world and have helped in medical and scientific fields. The problem is they’re extremely fragile and costly. One collision could be the end of a drone’s career. So how do you protect them when they’re airborne? Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute propose a solution: expandable structures.
In an effort to come up with different strategies that would allow roboticists to change the structure of drones, the team of Hooman Hedayati, Ryo Suzuki, Daniel Leithinger, and Daniel Szafir developed PufferBot. Taking inspiration from its namesake, the pufferfish, it has an actuated, expandable structure that lets it quickly shift its shape by expanding and contracting. Based on an expandable frame and an actuator with one degree of freedom, the structure also mimics the expansion of airbags. Like how airbags protect humans in car collisions, the frame can limit the damage caused by the robot’s collision with objects in may come across.
"Our design offers several new communicative properties and potential safety benefits, as in the case of a collision or crash, the expandable structure can reduce impacts to both the robot and whatever the robot hits," said researcher Hooman Hedayati. "… when the drone is flying through a cluttered space or if it is about to collide with an object, the actuator can deploy the structure to protect the drone by covering its propellers and internal electronics."
The adjustable structure also enables the robot to change its size without decreasing its maneuverability. Researchers think this could even be used as a communication tool. The drone could be programmed to modify its shape if it detects a threat or augment in its environment as a way to warn humans from a distance. But most importantly, the team thinks this is the step needed to make robots easier for people to work with.
"One of the major goals of our research is to address a longstanding problem in robotics, which is that robots remain extremely difficult for people to work with," Hedayati notes. "There are several reasons for this, including human inexperience with robots, safety issues that robots introduce, and a lack of consideration regarding how humans and robots can effectively communicate. All of these issues are compounded when we consider aerial robots (i.e., drones)."
Next, the researchers wants to explore how these expandable structures can be used in human-robot interactions by making them more expressive. More details can be found in the PufferBot's paper here.