Tiny new drones that can pull objects up to 40 times their own weight have been developed by scientists working in the United States and Switzerland. These drones use gripping technology to take hold of an object and to anchor themselves to surfaces in the environment, which means that they can perform complex tasks like lassoing a door handle to open it or delivering bottles of water in a rescue scenario.
The new aerial vehicles measure a few inches across and they represent a huge upgrade in lifting capabilities, as most drones today can only carry twice their weight. The new drones are equipped with winches that can raise and lower objects to allow ease of movement around a busy environment. They can even collaborate with other drones in order to maximize the amount of weight being moved.
Researchers at Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have worked together to develop the weight-bearing drones, known as FlyCroTugs. The engineers were prompted by nature, taking inspiration from the feet of geckos and the behavior of insects. The idea for the tugging drones was born when Mark Cutkosky, Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, and his colleagues considered how insects deal with moving relatively large objects: When a wasp approaches a piece of food that is too heavy to be carried, the wasp will drag it along the ground. This inspired the concept of a drone which transports items much heavier than itself by anchoring to a larger object. The gecko’s feet come into play when the drone must move across a smooth surface, for which they are equipped with 32 tiny metal spikes that latch onto the surface, just like a gecko does when climbing a wall.
An advantage of the small size of the drones is that they can get into tight spaces and can be safely flown close to people. This makes them suited for search and rescue missions, in which they could move debris or place cameras to help rescuers see inside dangerous environments. The next stages that the engineers are working on are autonomous controls and how to coordinate several drones at once.
Dedicated drone enthusiasts can read more about the FlyCroTugs at Science Robotics or see the EPFL’s news story.