Drone technology, both the flying and the ground-based kind, is advancing quickly. Industry-specific UAVs are already being put to work in some of the darkest and most dangerous places in the world. But from underground mines to nuclear cleanups, similar challenges are present to engineers and developers. The most notable is flight time: the ability to stay in the air for long enough to be useful – something that’s especially important in places too dangerous for humans to go, where drone’s offer the best way to gather data.
That’s where the ability to perch comes in. Added capabilities that allow drones to ‘perch’ in a single location without expending too much energy can make all the difference. At Imperial College London, researchers have been working on a unique way to keep a drone in the air. This is SpiderMAV, a spider-inspired drone that essentially builds its own web to remain stable in mid-air.
Firing webs to perch or stabilize
The development is being undertaken at Imperial College London’s Aerial Robotics Labs. As you can see in the video below, the drone, a modified DJI Matrice 100, is able to shoot out a synthetic material that attaches to nearby walls.
The drone can be fitted with two different modules, one for perching or one for stabilization. The perching module uses a magnetic anchor launcher and a spooling system packed with polystyrene thread. Once SpiderMAV has found a magnetic surface it wants to perch beneath, the launcher uses compressed gas to fire the anchor, which trails the thread behind it. SpiderMAV is able to reel in the thread to keep it taut, and can then slow or shut off its motors to save power while hanging from the ceiling.
What are the applications of SpiderMAV?
One of the obvious applications of this technology is underground, where visibility and the conditions make it difficult for humans to work.
The lab’s director, Dr Mirko Kovac, said: “One core application area is in deep mines, where we can imagine having drones operating in mines doing mapping tasks, sampling tasks and also looking at where the precious metals are. That is to inform decisions on where to mine, how to mine and how to do that more effectively, more cost-effectively… more sustainable as well.”
“So currently mining is done a lot with humans in the loops and humans are really four kilometres underground in enormous danger: there are explosions, there are collapsing structures, there is heat and a lot of pressure, and robotics can really improve that, and that is one application that in particular we focus on here at the robotics lab.”
He suggested that the team is working on new ways to fix the drone to surrounding structures so that it’s as versatile as a spider, not just inspired by one.
“Now the string material is one very important aspect of that and for now we use silk material to do that,”he said. “Now in the long run, we’ll look at new advanced new materials that could potentially also be deployed by the robot in different ways to allow perching and attach them where we want, [as well as] different adhesion methods and different ways in which we can stick to surfaces.”