Despite Jeff Bezos’s dreams of drone-powered Amazon Prime deliveries, these flying machines have two big problems when it comes to the “last inch” of the user experience, according to Dario Floreano. First, the larger the parcel, the larger the robot and the harder it is to store it or transport that robot when it’s not flying. The second and even more important problem is that the large propellers needed to carry parcels can seriously damage humans, animals, and of course property. If you want to deliver packages with smart flying bots, you need to solve these two problems–and Floreano and his team of engineers think they have.
Floreano is the director of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and at the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research Robotic, and he and his team have developed a drone that flies inside a lightweight cage designed to protect people. The drone is also completely foldable. The folding is so efficient, in fact, that it reduces its volume by an impressive 90%.
That means you can store the drone in a drawer or a backpack. When the drone is unfolded, its cage provides protection to nearby people, the parcel, and the drone itself. That cage also means that you can deliver packages of up to 1.1 pounds directly to the hands of people (what is known as manual capture), according to Przemyslaw Korntowski, one of its designers. As the drone approaches a human, that person can just extend an arm and grab it without fear of getting cut–something that’s very hard to do with a traditional drone design, even when its propellers are encased in a protective shell.
The team thinks that this “last-inch,” hand-to-drone system will be ideal in emergency situations, too. First responders can have them stored in a drawer inside their vehicles, and deploy them in two seconds to deliver medicines or any other supplies to people in hard-to-reach places. The drone doesn’t require a human pilot, either; a phone-based control application allows you to mark a delivery spot and the drone will automatically fly itself to the destination, avoiding any obstacles on its way. There, instead of having to land remotely controlled by a human, the drone will land itself or people can grab it as it hovers near them.
How well does their system work? The team claims that they’ve been using it to distribute 3D-printed parts around the École Polytechnique Fédérale campus all summer.