Shape-shifting drone could speed up search and rescue in disaster zones

The craft morphs in flight to enter collapsed buildings and other places inaccessible to humans.
Image: Self-folding drone
The drone can contract and fold to enter small spaces, and is equipped with two cameras to stream footage to rescue teams.
Get the Mach newsletter.
/ Source:
By Chloe Taylor, CNBC

A drone that can change shape in flight has been developed by researchers at the University of Zurich to assist with search and rescue missions.

Able to contract and fold, the aircraft can enter small cracks and spaces to stream footage to rescue teams via its two integrated cameras. The drone is designed for use in areas in disaster zones that become inaccessible to rescuers due to safety concerns or physical restrictions.

Davide Falanga, one of its developers, said the drone could make rescue missions more efficient and effective.

"(This drone could have) multiple impacts — it can go into areas that would otherwise be inaccessible," he said. "In the aftermath of an earthquake it could let rescuers enter and explore a collapsed building. We used the most efficient and stable systems allow it to fly longer, and have held public demonstrations in realistic scenarios which showed that this is a feasible product."

Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the project took six months to go from concept to prototype. However, as the drone is still in early-development stages, its developers have no timescale for a wide rollout.

"We would be open to commercializing and discussing opportunities with investors, but at the moment there's no commercial plan," Falanga told CNBC. "We have sometimes had to tinker with the system when we've deployed it — we want it to be deployed and work immediately, so we need about six months to a year to improve the drone and make it more robust so it can work in more scenarios. But the idea itself is definitely feasible."

According to the research paper written by the drone's developers, their aircraft "could lead to a shift in the research community towards morphing aerial vehicles."

However, they noted that there were still several unsolved research questions, such as "automatic morphology selection,"which refers to the robot's ability to autonomously take the best shape for the task at hand.

Unsolved problems

Mohan Sridharan, senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham's School of Computer Science, told CNBC via email that foldable drones were being explored by the wider robotics research community, with several concepts currently in development.

"This would indeed help in disaster response, but the stable navigation of such a drone is not a solved problem," he said. "Also, complex applications such as disaster response pose other challenges related to perception, reasoning, and communication."

Maria Kamargianni, lecturer in transport and energy at University College London, told CNBC that privacy concerns would need to be addressed before the drone could be commercialized.

"This is a very promising technology for search and rescue projects, and it's much more economically viable than existing options. In circumstances where a helicopter or a drone could be used, a drone would be much cheaper to deploy," she said.

"The technology has lots of other applications as well — for example, it could be used to examine the quality of materials on a collapsed bridge. But technologies must be developed in line with public acceptance of them, so these drones should be designed in a way that notifies the public they are being used by the authorities — this could be done by using distinctive colors. In rolling them out companies would also have to make sure they are not violating personal data regulations."

Want more stories about technology?