Researchers from MIT and other universities have managed to create a drone that can stay in the sky after being struck, much like insects can. The drone uses a tiny rubber actuator to flap the wings rather than a motor used by most consumer and commercial drones.

The drone project is headed up by MIT assistant professor Kevin Yufeng Chen and co-authored with MIT PhD student Zhijian Ren, Harvard University PhD student Siyi Xu, and City University of Hong Kong roboticist Pakpong Chirarattananon.

The best way to describe the drone comes from MIT themselves. “If you’ve ever swatted a mosquito away from your face, only to have it return (and again and again), you know that insects can be remarkably acrobatic and resilient in flight.”

This extreme resilience allows mosquitos and other insects to navigate their surroundings without becoming injured or even dying. This is also what prompted Chen to create the new drone inspired by nature.

“If we look at most drones today, they’re usually quite big. Most of their applications involve flying outdoors. The question is: Can you create insect-scale robots that can move around in very complex, cluttered spaces?”

The drone uses a rubber actuator that has been coated in a layer of carbon nanotubes that react when a voltage is applied across it. This reaction to the voltage allows the actuator to be squeezed. Repeating this then makes the wings flap similarly to an insect. The actuators created by Chen can flap at around 500 times per second.

While this type of drone is still in its early stages and has a few things that need to be ironed out, the applications already make themselves known. Due to the size, the drone could help pollinate flowers and even conduct indoor inspections in extremely tight spaces.

Farrell Helbling, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, added:

“Achieving flight with a centimeter-scale robot is always an impressive feat. Because of the soft actuators’ inherent compliance, the robot can safely run into obstacles without greatly inhibiting flight. This feature is well-suited for flight in cluttered, dynamic environments and could be very useful for any number of real-world applications. I’m excited to see how the authors will reduce operating voltage so that they may one day be able to achieve untethered flight in real-world environments.”

Researchers are also doing more epic things with drones, everything from quantum networks to preventing drones from falling out of the sky.

Photo: MIT

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