Researchers from the Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences have created an aerial robot that can change shape mid-flight, just like birds do. The robot can navigate tight spaces by reorienting its arms, which are equipped with helicopter-style propellers. These shape-shifting robots can navigate tighter, more complex spaces, and could become essential in search and rescue missions or exploration.
Birds can quickly fold their wings during high-speed flights and reduce their span to get through smaller spaces. Scientists copied the mechanism for Quad-Morphing, which can navigate obstacles and tight passages without intensive steering (which can consume too much energy).
The transforming robot has two rotating arms, each with two propellers. The robot can change the orientation of its arms midflight to be parallel or perpendicular to its central axis. When its arms are parallel, it reduces its wingspan in half to traverse narrow stretches, an action that mirrors the movements of budgerigars and goshawks flying at speeds above 14 km per hour. The robot can fly at a speed of 9 km per hour, which is “pretty fast for an aerial robot,” according to researchers.
The robot currently navigates using an autopilot system based on a 3D localization system (a set of 17 cameras is tracking its every move and helping it navigate). But it’s recently been equipped with a tiny camera that can take 120 pictures per second. In the future, the camera could allow the flying robot to determine its own path, and determine when it’s time to fold tight and move through.