The robot that always lands on its feet

© 2012 EPFL

© 2012 EPFL

While it’s exploring confined, dangerous or cluttered zones, the flying robot “Airburr” isn’t fazed by crashes or falls. Built using a design approach that’s diametrically opposite to that of similar robots, it actively seeks out contact, and can move about without fear of accidents.

Contrary to other flying robots, which try at all costs to avoid obstacles, AirBurr has been designed to withstand the shock of a collision. Its navigational algorithms, developed in EPFL’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory (LIS), allow it to exploit these contacts in order to move about. “Four years ago we developed a flying robot that could duck around obstacles,” explains project leader Adam Klaptocz, “but in a chaotic environment it wasn’t reliable, and it always ended up running into something and crashing and then it couldn’t get back up again.” He decided to change their approach. The scientist designed a robust, autonomous helicopter that could remain airborne after a collision and get itself back up after a fall. The LIS team has just published the results of the project in the journal IEEE Transactions in Robotics.

300 grams of bio-inspired ingenuity
Like an insect looking for an open window, AirBurr finds its way around by deliberately coming into contact with its surroundings. Its carbon-fiber fuselage protects its vital parts like an exoskeleton. Its four retractable legs come out to deal with complex situations, even when trapped underneath a table. Its two propellers, installed on the same axis, give it a good push-off and allow it to spin. Its accelerometers and gyroscopes automatically control its orientation. “We automated it as much as possible,” explains Adrien Briod, a PhD student who worked on the algorithms. “We give it basic indications like ‘get up when on the ground’ but it carries out the maneuver of getting back up all by itself.”

Braving dangers without avoiding obstacles
Flying robots can go where other, terrestrial machines cannot, and they are invaluable for exploring dangerous zones like collapsed buildings, irradiated areas, caves and mines, in which contact with obstacles is inevitable. The drones used in the Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, were unable to fly near each other and could only collect information in a very piecemeal manner. The research around AirBurr has focused on absorbing the shock of collisions, finding mechanical means to get out of difficult physical situations, and developing navigational algorithms based on contact with other objects.

The prototype will evolve depending on the needs of those who will be using it. On a mission, for example, the AirBurr platform might need to be adapted to allow it to explore extreme conditions involving contact with water, heat or radiation. At the moment, the engineers are working on an improved version.