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A Flying Robot That Can Crash, Get Up, And Fly Again

If a fly can smack a window and live to tell the tale, why can’t our robots?

If you’ve ever flown an R/C plane, you know how nerve wracking it can be. Navigating in three dimensions opens up the possibility to run into so many things, and a single crash could be your last.

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Now, a team from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems has been working on a UAV called the AirBurr. Whereas most UAVs are optimized solely to avoid crashing, these researchers realized that “even the smallest collisions with the environment required tedious repairs.” So they approached the AirBurr with a different primary focus–to survive the inevitable crash to fly another day.

“When looking at nature, we noticed that insects and birds also collide with windows and walls, but can usually survive the crash, recover and keep flying. So we decided to do the same thing with our robots,” explains project engineer Adam Klaptocz. The team developed a carbon fiber exoskeleton that could absorb impact without damaging internal components. Even still, there was one missing component: Surviving a crash is one thing, getting back into the air without human intervention is another.

So the AirBurr grew legs. Also constructed of carbon fiber, they tuck close to the body during flight, loaded like springs through a motorized nylon string. “When the robot falls on its side, the string is simply unwound, and the energy stored in the legs pushes against the ground to upright the platform,” explains Klaptocz. “The entire system is optimized to provide the required force with the minimum possible weight and effect on platform aerodynamics and stability.”

It just goes to show, durability is a tough trait to design. Watching the AirBurr in action, the innovations seem so obvious that it’s easy to lose site of the fact that the model you see here is 3 years in the making, the result of eight versions of iterations of theory in practice. Then again, birds and insects–the AirBurr’s inspiration–have been in development for about 6 billion years now. So multiply AirBurr’s development time by about 2 billion, and I’m guessing it’ll be one wicked UAV.

[Hat tip: Gizmag]

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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