A new palm-sized drone is mini, but mighty

The bot reels in its cargo while affixed to a surface, rather than flying with a load

a photo of a small drone held in a person's hand

HEAVY LIFTER  A new type of drone can lift items up to 40 times its own weight by perching on various surfaces and reeling in objects.

Laboratory of Intelligent Systems/EPFL ©

A new type of mini drone can pull a lot more than its own weight.

The drone latches onto a surface and uses a cable to reel in objects up to 40 times its mass, researchers report. This feat is a marked improvement over other flying robots, which generally can’t tote objects heavier than about their own weight (SN: 2/7/15, p. 18). The new palm-sized flyer, described October 24 in Science Robotics, could work in factories or help with exploration and search-and-rescue missions.

Each 100-gram quadcopter is equipped with either gecko-inspired adhesive or microspines, which resemble tiny fishhooks, that help it cling to various surfaces (SN Online: 6/28/17). After attaching a cable to an object, the drone flies to its destination, anchors itself to its landing spot and uses a mechanical winch to pull in its cargo. This sequence of events allows the drone to transport objects that would be too heavy to carry while flying.

Mechanical engineer Matthew Estrada of Stanford University and colleagues flew one of their drones up to a partially collapsed building, where the robot affixed itself to a concrete overhang and lifted a 200-gram payload including a camera off the ground to peer into the ruins.

Another pair of drones teamed up to open a heavy door. One robot hooked a loop around the door handle, stuck itself to the door and yanked the handle down. The other drone tucked a spring-loaded hook under the door, bit into the carpet with its row of microspine teeth and pulled the door open.

In the future, teams of heavy-lifting drones could help schlep inventory in warehouses, turn valves in factories or clear rubble in disaster zones.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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