Researchers at UC Berkeley have created a drone that can shapeshift mid-air. The experimental drone is called Midair Reconfigurable Quadcopter.

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft that can fly on its own. Nikola Tesla first mentioned unmanned aerial combat vehicles in 1915. A century later, we use drones everywhere, from the military to marriage halls.

Abraham Karem is credited as the founding founder of modern-day drone technology. He built his first drone during the Yom Kippur War and later the Predator drone, which earned him the title of ‘Drone father’.

UC Berkeley quadcopter

The shape-shifter drone is capable of perching on a hanging wire.

Shape-Shifter Drone

The team working at UC Berkeley’s High Performance Robotics Laboratory (HiPeRLab) used passive unactuated hinges to create the shapeshifter. The drone can fold its arms to change shape and maneuver through different settings. The unactuated hinges do away with the necessity of battery-sapping actuators and sensors. An actuator is a device that helps a machine produce motion, by converting energy and signals. They are used in most electronics from electric door locks to aircraft.

Each of the hinges folds inwards, when the rotor stops or reverses, and pushes outward when it is powered up.  The quadcopter can use this method to easily adapt itself to its environment. Researchers mention that it can squeeze through a narrow opening and use its foldable arms to hold down objects.

The Midair Reconfigurable Quadcopter is capable of navigating narrow openings as its arms can fold all rotors or even stop midway. The researchers also state that the shapeshifting drone is capable of perching itself on a hanging wire. When all its arms are folded downwards, its center of mass shifts below the wire, which enables it to find the proper balance.

UC Berkeley first announced the shape-shifter drone in a paper published in 2019. However, it is only recently that they made the video available to the public.  

Last  October, researchers from Caltech designed the bipedal robot Leonardo that could walk a tightrope and use a skateboard.

HiPeRLab Achievements

At HiPeRLab, researchers mainly focus on fundamental robotics capabilities and work on developing technology that can aid us in everyday life. They mainly focus on safety, localization, and design. A comprehensive list of their achievements can be found on their official YouTube channel.

The HiPeRLab site also lists its development of a memoryless planner that can help gather data in unstructured outdoor environments. The drone plans motions in the output of a depth camera. The site mentions that to “achieve autonomous operations, a UAV must be able to plan motions and trajectories.” 

“Each camera frame represents a map of the vehicle’s immediate environment; we generate a new motion plan with every camera frame. The result is a receding horizon planner that naturally accounts for changes in the environment.”

The research for the memoryless planner was sponsored by the Army Research Laboratory.

Future of Drones

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Miniature Pilotless Aircraft or Flying Mini Robots, have become extremely popular in the last decade. Although it has not been adapted for mass usage, companies have started employing and testing services using drones. They have been able to make headway where traditional options have failed to yield results. Drones have been helpful in exploring spaces inaccessible to man. They also save time, effort, and energy, which is why companies are increasingly adopting drones for commercial use.

Commercially, the use of drones has continued to rise, and investments have poured into companies working on drone tech. Sophisticated drones can be used for delivery services, monitoring tense situations, and even performing tasks like fertilizing fields. Experts believe that the impact of commercial drones could be around $82 billion by 2025, generate thousands of jobs, and have a significant impact on the US economy.

Drone technology is still in its nascent stages and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.