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Shape-shifting Dragon Drone Can Transform During Flight

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【Summary】Future upgrades to the dragon drone could include legs for added versatility and ground-based movements, as well as extended battery life.

Michael Cheng    Jul 04, 2018 11:10 AM PT
Shape-shifting Dragon Drone Can Transform During Flight

Researchers from the University of Tokyo's JSK Lab have unleashed a shape-shifting drone that can change its physical characteristics during flight. The unit is conveniently referred to as a dragon drone, which stands for "Dual-rotor embedded multilink robot with the ability of multi-degree-of-freedom aerial transformation." 

Modelled after dragon kites, the unit was recently showcased by developers performing a myriad of stunning maneuvers. The group released footage of the drone transforming its body for general flight and passing through small openings.

Autonomous Transformation

The dragon drone contains four connected parts that pivot at the ends. All sections are equipped with two ducted fan thrusters controlled electronically via controllers. Intricate movements are facilitated by flight control and distributed control boards. Transformations are conducted autonomously and does not require operators to manually configure each section of the UAV.

During flight, the unit can change into basic shapes, including a box, L-shaped configuration, zig-zag lines and spiral shapes. The dragon drone was previewed at ICRA 2018 in Brisbane, Australia, where researchers received distinction for the project.

"DRAGON is able to autonomously decide how to transform when given the constraints of the space it needs to pass through," said IEEE Spectrum. "And we can imagine DRAGON wrapping itself around stuff to move it, or using direct contact with the environment to do other exciting things."

The unit's shape-shifting features require a lot of power to execute properly. Because of this, the UAV can only offer up to three minutes of flight per charge. Inside, the small drone is powered by a quad-core processor with built-in memory and a robust camera. All of the components are part of Intel Euclid (a development kit).

Applications and Future Developments

The dragon drone has a wide range of applications in both commercial and industrial markets. For UAV operations in buildings, such as warehouses, manufacturing plants and storage sites, the shape-shifting quadcopter can navigate through tight spaces, which is ideal for accessing hard-to-reach locations for inspections. The unit may also be used for cutting-edge light shows, due to its ability to form various letters and shapes.

Developers of the dragon drone plan to extend the capabilities of the unit. According to researchers, a 12-unit model may serve as a floating claw for picking up and transporting objects around a facility. Future upgrades could include legs for added versatility and ground-based movements, as well as extended battery life. Moreover, different types of extensions may help the UAV perform specific tasks. For example, a small, padded basket attachment and robotic pincers could be used together to move medical samples between rooms inside a lab.

"We will move forward to design a ‘multi-legged' model with our basic link module. Then the robot can not only fly, but also walk on the ground," said Moju Zhao, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo, during an interview with Digital Trends. "This can benefit us in terms of the energy efficiency."

"Our ultimate dream is to achieve the flying humanoid, like an unmanned Iron Man."

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