These tiny wasp-inspired drones can open a door 40 times their weight, and could one day be used in disaster zones

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Microdrones

  • Researchers have built tiny microdrones capable of tugging open a door 40 times their weight.
  • They took inspiration from predatory wasps, which can drag large prey along the ground.
  • One researcher said the technology could be adapted for more complex tasks such as moving debris or retrieving objects from disaster zones.

Researchers have built microdrones, capable of tugging open a door 40 times their weight, by studying the biology of predatory wasps.

Robotics researchers at Stanford University and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland wanted to find a way for tiny microdrones to exert "forceful tugging," so they turned to biomimetics — meaning they took inspiration from the natural world.

They observed that wasps are able to carry away large prey by dragging it along the ground. They used this behaviour as a model when creating tiny microdrones, which they named "FlyCroTugs."

Wasp caterpillar

The drones are equipped with cables and winches, and can attach the cable to an object and then anchor themselves to the ground before starting to spool the cable towards themselves.

Using this technology, two FlyCroTugs, each weighing 100 grams, were able to open a door 40 times their mass.

You can watch the microdrones opening the door here:

Part of the FlyCroTug’s design took its cue from another animal. Famous for clinging to walls with their sticky feet, the gecko lizard provided inspiration for the drones’ adhesive.

"Teams of these drones could work cooperatively to perform more complex manipulation tasks," Stanford researcher Matt Estrada told IEEE Spectrum, a magazine dedicated to engineering and applied sciences.

"We demonstrated opening a door, but this approach could be extended to turning a ball valve, moving a piece of debris, or retrieving an object of interest from a disaster zone."

There are still a few hurdles to overcome before the tiny drones could be used in the field. At the moment their battery only lasts for five minutes. The FlyCroTug also requires a human to pilot it, as the researchers have yet to develop any sensing or AI systems for it.

You can read the researchers’ full paper on building the FlyCroTug drone here.

SEE ALSO: This 16-year-old invented a robot that can help scientists keep trees and forests healthy

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Inspired by spiders and wasps, these tiny drones pull 40x their own weight

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If we want drones to do our dirty work for us, they’re going to need to get pretty good at hauling stuff around. But due to the pesky yet unavoidable restraints of physics, it’s hard for them to muster the forces necessary to do so while airborne — so these drones brace themselves against the ground to get the requisite torque.

The drones, created by engineers at Stanford and Switzerland’s EPFL, were inspired by wasps and spiders that need to drag prey from place to place but can’t actually lift it, so they drag it instead. Grippy feet and strong threads or jaws let them pull objects many times their weight along the ground, just as you might slide a dresser along rather than pick it up and put it down again. So I guess it could have also just been inspired by that.

Whatever the inspiration, these “FlyCroTugs” (a combination of flying, micro and tug presumably) act like ordinary tiny drones while in the air, able to move freely about and land wherever they need to. But they’re equipped with three critical components: an anchor to attach to objects, a winch to pull on that anchor and sticky feet to provide sure grip while doing so.

“By combining the aerodynamic forces of our vehicle and the interactive forces generated by the attachment mechanisms, we were able to come up with something that is very mobile, very strong and very small,” said Stanford grad student Matthew Estrada, lead author of the paper published in Science Robotics.

The idea is that one or several of these ~100-gram drones could attach their anchors to something they need to move, be it a lever or a piece of trash. Then they take off and land nearby, spooling out thread as they do so. Once they’re back on terra firma they activate their winches, pulling the object along the ground — or up over obstacles that would have been impossible to navigate with tiny wheels or feet.

Using this technique — assuming they can get a solid grip on whatever surface they land on — the drones are capable of moving objects 40 times their weight — for a 100-gram drone like that shown, that would be about 4 kilograms, or nearly 9 pounds. Not quickly, but that may not always be a necessity. What if a handful of these things flew around the house when you were gone, picking up bits of trash or moving mail into piles? They would have hours to do it.

As you can see in the video below, they can even team up to do things like open doors.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world,” said co-author of the paper, EPFL’s Dario Floreano, in a news release. “But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength. Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”

Unless you’re prepared to wait for humanoid robots to take on tasks like this (and it may be a decade or two), you may have to settle for drone swarms in the meantime.

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Start ’em early: 8 of the best laptops for kids

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It will take the purchase of a compatible keyboard (about $100) to transform the Microsoft Surface Go from tablet to laptop, but we think the features included with this device make it a worthy contender on this list. 

The Surface Go security system includes Windows defender and customizable parental controls, as well as built-in parental controls: Only apps verified by the Microsoft store can be downloaded onto the laptop.

The lightweight tablet weighs in at 1.15 pounds, and its sleek frame should be no problem for little hands to handle. The laptop comes equipped with two built-in HD cameras, and it’s small enough to pull double duty so you don’t have to buy a camera for your little shutterbug. The Surface Go also uses Windows Hello technology that lets you log in using the camera, eliminating the chance of your kids forgetting their passwords. 

Speaking of forgetfulness, the tablet boasts 9 hours of battery life, which will benefit those who have a hard time remembering to plug into the charger.

Accessories for the Surface Go – compatible keyboard, pen, and mouse – must be purchased separately. 

Amazon reviewer

Jorge Lu

writes:

“If you need a PC to do light work and can live with a 10 inch display, you’ll love it. Or maybe you want a tablet that can be more than just that. I like the whole philosophy behind it, a device that you can take anywhere and use it in all your activities. After using it at work I can take the keyboard off and watch a movie or browse the web while listening some music or use a pen to do some digital painting as a hobby, It’s just so versatile. I think this is the closest thing to what Microsoft wanted to achieve with the Surface line. Even closer than the already great Surface Pro.

And there’s this premium feel to it. The magnesium body feels very solid, the kickstand doesn’t move if you don’t want to and if you pair it with the Alcantara keyboard it’s just a very different experience that you can feel. And yet it’s so light. You’ll have a disappointing experience touching a plastic laptop after using one of these.”

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Videographer puts an instant camera on a drone and takes unique aerial shots

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Have you ever seen instant aerial photos? I know I haven’t. This is why I was fascinated when I saw a project by aerial cinematographer Trent Siggard. He mounted an instant camera onto a drone and brought the world of instant photography and aerial photography together. In the article below, you can see how he did it and check out the awesome photos he took with this unusual build.

But first, why would you put an instant camera on a drone? Trent says: just because it’s ridiculous! If you ask me, it’s a reason good enough, but there are two more. He wanted to be more intentional in what he shot and to give himself a challenge. So, Trent got to work.

He had an extra 500mm quadcopter frame which was merely collecting dust. So, he got it flying and mounted a Fujifilm Instax Mini 9 camera onto it. There were, of course, some challenges to overcome. For instance, he only had about 2mm to spare in-between the camera and the 11” propellers. This made it very difficult to mount the camera as Trent had to remove it after every 10 photos and put in a new instant film cartridge. But he ended up using a dual lock to mount the camera in a way where it was removable and used some rubber band reinforcement to hold the top of the camera back.

Since the shutter speed is 1/60th and the flash always fires on the camera Trent mounted onto a drone, there were illuminated propellers in some images. Trent dealt with it DIY style – he added a bit of tape over the flash. Problem solved.

Trent even made a reference monitor so he could have a rough idea what he was shooting:

“To have a reference of what the camera was seeing I used a standard FPV camera attached the side of the Instax with dual lock so I could have a reference monitor on the ground and to have a rough idea of what my camera framing was like.”

To trigger the camera, Trent glued a Futaba S3003 Standard Servo to it. He plugged it into the flight controller, mapped the servo channel to a spring-loaded switch on the controller, and limited its travel in his remote.

Trent wrote more about his project in this post, so you can learn more details about how the whole thing was built and used. And of course, make sure to watch the video, too. And other than unique instant photos, what did this project mean for Trent? Well, first of all, it was fun. But also, it made him slow down, think, and shoot one image at a time.

Take a look at more photos below, and check out Trent’s work on his website, Instagram, and YouTube channel.

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