If drones start delivering pizza or Tylenol, or helping human workers inside a factory, it's almost inevitable that there will be some accidents. A new bubble-like drone shows how drones could be safer in a crash—and, as a bonus, more energy-efficient.
"Typical drones pose a potential risk of harming humans," says Nina Gaissert, biologist and part of the Bionic Learning Network at Festo, the German company that designed the new conceptual drone. "The powerful but rigid rotors are dangerous for fingers and eyes."
Instead of standard rotors, the ball has a lightweight ring with propellers inspired by dragonfly wings. "The adaptive propellers are harmless to humans due to their design, and are still powerful to allow for precise and fast maneuvers of the whole sphere," she says.
Because the ball is also filled with helium, if the propellers stop working, it won't crash on a human below, but just sink gently to the ground. Using helium also makes the system more energy-efficient, because the propellers don't have to carry the whole weight of an object.
The drone also picks up objects differently. Instead of using typical robotic grippers, like rudimentary hands, it uses a water-filled silicone cap that wraps around whatever it's trying to pick up. The design is inspired by chameleons, which pick up insects the same way with their tongues: the tongue retracts slightly in the middle and then wraps around the bug to trap it.
It doesn't take any energy for the system to hold onto an object, and it's also possible to pick up multiple objects at once. The design of the propellers—which work vertically as well as horizontally—means that the drone can rotate to pick something up off a shelf or from the ceiling, and can rotate again to deliver something to the side rather than just dropping it.
The design is best suited for indoor use such as factories, at least in its current form, because the wind would make it difficult to fly precisely outside. It also can't carry much—the weight limit is less than a pound. And, sadly, the company isn't planning to develop it more to bring it to market, but just to use it as an inspirational tool.
"Festo wants to demonstrate [our] solution expertise in a way that will inspire young people to take an interest in technology and help us to discover new talents," says Gaissert.