A lot of UAV research is focused on making flying robots that can navigate by themselves using sophisticated sensor systems, intelligently avoiding crashing into things. This is a fantastic goal to have, but it's not easy. EPFL is doing away with just about all of that with a new version of AirBurr, a robot that's specifically designed to run into everything and crash all the time, building maps as it does so.
As we saw last June, AirBurr has undergone a remarkable evolution since 2009. And even in 2012, they were only on version 8, while the current version is up to 11. AirBurr is a coaxial UAV that is totally comfortable with collisions, thanks to its shock absorbing roll cage and self-righting mechanism:
Its rigid central core is surrounded by specially-designed tetrahedral-shaped springs that buckle to efficiently absorb impact energy. The springs protect the AirBurr from impacts with obstacles and can be used to physically interact with objects while in flight. If a collision results in a fall to the ground, the robot's Active Recovery System, comprised of a system of spring-loaded carbon fibre legs, allow it to return to an upright position and take off again.
Here it is in action:
Obviously, having just four sensors makes AirBurr kinda terrible at obstacle avoidance, but the simple fact is that it just doesn't matter: it may not be efficient at finding its way down a hallway, but it does so with an absolute bare minimum of sensors, and it wouldn't care if the hallway was pitch black or full of smoke or otherwise a place in which conventional vision would be out of luck. This vastly increases the number of environments in which AirBurr can be used.
The mapping behavior is especially cool, and if the resulting light paintings remind you of anything, it's because AirBurr employs a random direction algorithm that's similar to the one used by some robotic vacuum cleaners.
This sort of behavior is based in no small part on insects, which also have very primitive sensing systems combined with body structures that allow them to survive numerous collisions. Bugs may not be particularly smart, but as it turns out, big brains and complex sensors aren't always necessary for robust flight and navigation.
We'll see more of this research at ICRA in May from the EPFL team (which includes Briod Adrien, Adam Klaptocz, Kornatowski Przemyslaw Mariusz, and Zufferey Jean-Christophe), but there's a hint on EPFL's website as to where the researchers are taking this: they'll be presenting a paper entitled "A Perching Mechanism for Flying Robots Using a Fibre-Based Adhesive." Cool!
[ AirBurr ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.