A team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) created the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which is programmed to avoid obstacles and can conveniently fit in a rucksack.
The drone, which carries up to 500g a distance of 2km, has a distinctive outer cage. The carbon-fibre structure protects the UAV and its cargo in case of a collision or fall, allows recipients to catch it in mid-flight without injury and lets it land on steep or uneven terrain.
The caged quadcopter device would have been impossible without modern components, said avionics lecturer Steve Wright to Professional Engineering.
“All this modern drone technology allows us to sort of cheat as it were, as engineers,” said Wright, from the University of the West of England in Bristol. “We don’t have to please the laws of aerodynamics any more, like we’ve had to with conventional aircraft.”
The average payload and endurance capabilities show that new drones are still “very limited” by the batteries and parts available, said Wright.
However, speaking as communities around the world deal with the devastating impact of hurricanes, earthquakes and monsoons, Wright said there was “no doubt” that the Swiss UAV would be helpful after disasters.
“Someone can tear up to a situation, pull that piece of equipment out of a backpack and make it work,” he said. “It’s useful in trying to move through an area, so the obvious thing is where you have got trees, buildings, wreckage, any sort of thing like that.”
The drone, which was designed in EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems with funding from NCCR Robotics, uses self-flying technology after a route is planned to avoid obstacles. After delivery of its load, it can return on its own and is tracked in real time on a tablet or smartphone. Its volume reduces by 92% when folded.
The team completed more than 150 test flights around the institute's campus and is already planning improvements such as an emergency parachute for breakdowns.
“This project is a work in progress – in addition to strengthening its ability to detect and avoid objects, we are exploring possibilities to increase the drone’s payload capacity and enhance its autonomy,” said developer Przemyslaw Kornatowski.
The EPFL scientists published their research online.