Origami-Designed Drone Can Deform Upon Impact

A drone developed by researchers in Switzerland is undamaged during a crash because of its unique structure, which was inspired by both insect wings and origami.

The Japanese paper art of origami is inspiring scientists to come up with designs to enable new properties in materials and thus the products created with them. One of the latest examples is work from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), where researchers have developed a drone that is flexible enough to absorb shocks without breaking before returning to its initial shape. The drone—inspired by insect wings as well as origami—is composed of a unique structure that allows for both stiffness and flexibility, enabling it to have these two opposite characteristics simultaneously.

origami drone
Researchers in Switzerland have developed a drone that is both flexible and stiff and can deform upon impact without being damaged. The team from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) was inspired by both origami and insect wings to design the drone’s unique structure. (Image source: EPFL)

Moreover, researchers can actually tune the properties of the drone at will, said Stefano Mintchev, one of the researchers from the Institute of Microengineering in EPFL’s School of Engineering and the lead author on a paper published about the research in the journal Science Robotics. “When we make a drone, we can give it specific mechanical properties,” he said in an EPFL news release. “This includes, for example, defining the moment at which the structure switches from stiff to flexible.” 

The drone also has the unique characteristic of building up elastic potential energy when it’s folded up, he added. This means it can unfold automatically when so instructed.

Flexibility

Origami has inspired robotics and material designers to develop two types of origami-inspired structures for new types of robots and drones: rigid structures that have a certain weight-bearing capacity, but will break if that capacity is exceeded, and flexible structures that can’t carry much of a load, but are much more resilient.

EPFL researchers have gone a step further, Mintchev said. Using what they observed about insect wings, they developed a drone that combines the best of both of these types of structures. When the drone is flying, it’s stiff enough to carry its own weight and withstand the thrust of the propellers, researchers said. But if the drone runs into something or hits the ground, it becomes flexible in order to absorb the shock and therefore minimize any damage.

“The current trend in robotics is to create ‘softer’ robots that can adapt to a given function and operate safely alongside humans. But some applications also require a certain level of rigidity,” said Dario Floreano, one of the paper’s other authors. “With our system, we have shown that you can strike the right balance between the two.” 

Researchers achieved their goal by stretching an elastomer membrane and then sandwiching it between rigid plates. This results in a structure in which the plates hold together when the drone is at rest, giving the structure its stiffness. But when enough force is applied, the plates draw apart and the structure can bend, they said.

Get a Grip

Drones aren’t the only robots or devices that can be built using this type of structure. Researchers demonstrated this by using the same technology to create a soft-touch gripper as they also were developing the drone, Floreano said. The gripper softens once it reaches a certain level of pressure, which prevents it from breaking the object that it is picking up. This type of design also means it can’t pick up a load that exceeds its capacity and would cause it to fail, researchers noted. Other products and devices also can benefit from this structure.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga, and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

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