“Cute,” “endearing,” and “magical” aren’t typically words ascribed to unmanned aerial vehicles, but they certainly could be applied to the DelFly Explorer, the world’s first intelligent, flapping micro-drone.
Designed by a team of aerodynamics researchers at the Netherlands’ Technical University of Delft, the entire micro aerial vehicle (“MAV”) weighs 20 grams, or about four sheets of typical printer paper. The DelFly has wings of incredibly thin polyethylene foil, with stereo vision inspired by the exceptional capabilities of dragonflies’ compound eyes. It’s also the first robot of its kind to navigate obstacles on its own–and perhaps, its creators imagine, the first that could one day play real-life fairies.
“Our main interest here is to make these micro aerial vehicles as small and as intelligent as possible,” explains Guido de Croon, one of the scientists behind the DelFly Explorer. “These flapping wing MAVs are very suitable for indoor flight, and the reasons for that are because they use different aerodynamic principles than helicopters. The helicopter twirls its blades around fairly fast in order to fly, but the DelFly flaps with its wings, as animals do.”
Being tiny and having biomimetic qualities means that humans feel particularly comfortable around the DelFly, de Croon says. He’s come up with a number of scenarios in which the DelFly might be used–as pipeline inspectors, maybe, or robots that can tell when certain fruits in a massive greenhouse are ripe–but his most imaginative application takes place in a theme park. And not just any theme park, but in Efteling, one of the oldest and largest theme parks in the world.
Like Disneyland, the Netherlands’ Efteling has rides and attractions dedicated to magical stories, but they’re also firmly rooted in local, ancient folklore. The entire west side of the park is comprised of a fairy realm, or Marerijk, featuring a Fairy Tale Forest and a ride inspired by Morgan le Fay, the medieval fairy sorceress. De Croon imagines that versions of the DelFly could one day zip around the park as robotic fairies.
“[Efteling] has all kinds of fairy tales in it, but they’re still pretty static. But I thought it would be really neat if you had fairies flying around and if it could talk and interact with the children,” he says. (He hasn’t yet worked out all the details.)
Of course, the DelFly’s computing capabilities aren’t quite there yet, and it’s difficult to add more processing power to something so small. Glass windows or walls are also still an obstacle for the robot, like they are for bats and birds. De Croon and his team are working on giving the DelFly the ability to detect such surfaces and turn around, instead of flying into them and sinking down the wall slowly.
De Croon is also tinkering with giving the next iteration of the robot the ability to recognize when its lithium polymer batteries are low, and the decision to head back to the charging station if that’s the case.
“We want it to see a door or a window and fly through it, and after it goes through a few rooms it’ll realize, oh, my batteries aren’t so full anymore, I have to go back,” de Croon says. “These things are very challenging, and we know that small insects solve such tasks, and we draw a lot of inspiration from them. But these are types of research we haven’t conducted yet.”