A glacier crevasse has to be one of the worst places you could ever decide to fly a drone. It’s deep, dark, narrow, windy, and full of all kinds of nasty pointy bits, any one of which could collapse onto you at any time. This is also why you’d never want to enter one yourself, and why there aren’t any robots that are really able to go down into them to explore: it’s just horribly dangerous. From time to time, though, humans fall into crevasses, and then other humans have to (first) find them and then (hopefully) rescue them.
Last year, Lausanne, Switzerland-based startup Flyability partnered with the mountain rescue team at Zermatt Glacier in the Swiss Alps to offer them the services of Gimball, which is quite possibly the only robot that doesn’t care even a little bit whether you drop it into the bowels of a glacier. The drone took its HD camera and powerful lighting system deep into the ice, and came back out alive with video to prove it.
There are a bunch of other drones that come with protective cages of one sort or another, but Gimball is unique in that its protective cage is rotationally decoupled from the drone itself. This means that when the cage runs into something (like a massive ice wall), the force of the impact is absorbed by the cage and translated into rotational energy, while the drone inside remains stable and continues traveling generally in the direction that it was traveling in before. The upshot is that running into walls (or the floor or ceiling or whatever) is just not a big deal, and even untrained pilots can fly Gimball in treacherous places and still get back out in one piece.
So far, Flyability has been concentrating on developing Gimball as an industrial inspection drone, but this video highlights its capability as a search and rescue robot, especially in environments that are too complex or dangerous for any other robot to successfully navigate. Saying that Gimball is the only robot that doesn’t care where you send it isn’t hyperbole: this thing can go pretty much anywhere and be totally fine, whether you know how to fly it or not.
The big question now is when Flyability will take this unique mix of resilience, flexibility, and inherent safety and take it from $25,000 specialty drone to something that a kind of terrible drone pilot like myself can actually afford. And hopefully, it’ll be sometime very, very soon.
[ Flyability ]
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.