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Flying Dragon Robot Transforms Itself to Squeeze Through Gaps

DRAGON can change its shape to move through complex environments and even manipulate objects

3 min read
Flying Dragon Robot Transforms Itself to Squeeze Through Gaps
DRAGON is able to autonomously decide how to transform when given the constraints of the space it needs to pass through.
Photo: JSK Lab/University of Tokyo

There’s been a lot of recent focus on applications for aerial robots, and one of the areas with the most potential is indoors. The thing about indoors is that by definition you have to go through doors to get there, and once you’re inside, there are all kinds of things that are horribly dangerous to aerial robots, like more doors, walls, windows, people, furniture, hanging plants, lampshades, and other aerial robots, inevitably followed by still more doors.

One solution is to make your robots super small, so that they can fit through small openings without running into something fragile and expensive, but then you’re stuck with small robots that can’t do a whole heck of a lot. Another solution is to put your robots in protective cages, but then you’re stuck with robots that can’t as easily interact with their environment, even if they want to. Ideally, you’d want a robot that doesn’t need that level of protection, that’s somehow large and powerful but also small and nimble at the same time.

At JSK Lab at the University of Tokyo, roboticists have developed a robot called DRAGON, which (obviously) stands for for “Dual-rotor embedded multilink Robot with the Ability of multi-deGree-of-freedom aerial transformatiON.” It’s a modular flying robot powered by ducted fans that can transform literally on the fly, from a square to a snake to anything in between, allowing it to stretch out to pass through small holes and then make whatever other shape you want once it’s on the other side.

DRAGON is made of a series of linked modules, each of which consists of a pair of ducted fan thrusters that can be actuated in roll and pitch to vector thrust in just about any direction you need. The modules are connected to one another with a powered hinged joint, and the whole robot is driven by an Intel Euclid and powered by a battery pack (providing 3 minutes of flight time, which is honestly more than I would have thought), mounted along the robot’s spine. This particular prototype is made up of four modules, allowing it to behave sort of like a quadrotor, even though I suppose technically it’s an octorotor.

DRAGON droneThe DRAGON prototype has four links (a) connected through joints (b) powered by servo motors. Each link carries a pair of ducted fan thrusters (c). A flight control unit (labeled “spinal”) with onboard IMU and Intel Euclid sits on the second link. Each link has a distributed control board (labeled “neuron”), with the ducted fan rotors controlled by electronic speed controllers (rotor ESC).Image: JSK Lab/University of Tokyo

The paper presented at ICRA focused mostly on the fact that they managed to get this thing off the ground, in the air, and transforming a little bit (and there’s like four pages of math involved in that). DRAGON can fly as a straight line, as a box, as an “L” shape, and also has more complex 3D shapes like a zigzag or a spiral.

What’s exciting, though, is why this robot was designed to transform in the first place. The video, which—spoiler alert—is actually a teaser for a 2018 IROS paper, shows the robot changing its shape in order to squeeze through a small gap, and we were told at ICRA that DRAGON is able to autonomously decide how to transform when given the constraints of the space it needs to pass through. There’s more potential here than just fitting through small spaces, though: The researchers conceptualize this robot as a sort of overactuated flying arm that can both form new shapes and use those shapes to interact with the world around it by manipulating objects. Eventually, DRAGON will wiggle through the air with as many as 12 interlinked modules, and it’ll use its two ends to pick up objects like a two-fingered gripper. And we can imagine DRAGON wrapping itself around stuff to move it, or using direct contact with the environment to do other exciting things.

“Design, Modeling and Control of Aerial Robot DRAGON: Dual-Rotor Embedded Multilink Robot with the Ability of Multi-Degree-of-Freedom Aerial Transformation,” by Moju Zhao, Tomoki Anzai, Fan Shi, Xiangyu Chen, Kei Okada, and Masayuki Inaba from the University of Tokyo, was presented last month at ICRA 2018 in Brisbane, Australia.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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