Watch an insect fly around a room looking for a way out, and you’ll notice something interesting: No matter how many times it crashes into a wall or window, it just keeps going. What might be an accident at human scale is just an ordinary part of bug life. Scientists at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federerale de Lausanne have spent a lot of time thinking about this particular skill as they design the Gimball, a next-generation version of a robot made for use in disasters.
When a robot goes into a dangerous location–a collapsed mine, or an irradiated power plant, for example–it’s likely to run into a lot of obstacles that might make the journey impossible. Since they’re made from delicate equipment, most robots have been designed to just avoid running into things. But that’s a tricky process and doesn’t always work, especially in darker places.
“Conventional flying robots generally carry complex sensors such as laser scanners or Kinect sensors so that they can accurately detect the obstacles in their vicinity and avoid them,” explains Adrian Briod, the co-creator of the Gimball. “Insects do not rely on perfect sensors, but they can seamlessly survive collisions, which is a key capability that we wanted to reproduce.”
The crash-happy Gimball is built with a lightweight frame that bounces off anything the robot encounters on its way. Inside, an accelerometer and gyroscope keep the robot upright as the cage is turning, and a compass keeps it headed in the right direction.
Without the need for onboard sensors, the Gimball is much lighter than other drones. At 13 ounces, it can also carry up to three times its weight, so it could eventually be used to deliver food or other small supplies to disaster victims in places that humans or other robots can’t reach.
The light weight also makes it faster, though not too fast–right now it travels at a leisurely three miles per hour. Briod compares it to an insect that wouldn’t survive a run-in with a car windshield; high-speed crashes are still a problem.
Small bumps, though, could even be used to help the Gimball navigate. The robot is programmed to change direction when it runs into something. The device has yet to be tested in a disaster situation it’s proven, but–as you can see in the video above–it’s proven it can successfully make its way through a tree-filled Swiss forest.