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A new class oftiny flying robots can stick to surfaces and pull heavy objects many times their body weight, according to a new paper inScience Robotics.

However, thanks to their knack fornavigating small spaces, the robots could be used in the future for search and rescue, or to help perform tasks remotely (Estrada gave theexample ofclosing a valve inside a factory).

Stanford researchers modify small flying robots to anchor onto surfaces and pull heavy loads

A closed door is just one of many obstacles that poses no barrier to a new type of flying, micro, tugging robot called a FlyCroTug.

Developed in the labs of Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, and Dario Floreano at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, FlyCroTugs are micro air vehicles that the researchers have modified so the vehicles can anchor themselves to various surfaces using adhesives inspired by the feet of geckos and insects, previously developed in Cutkosky’s lab.

“Combining the aerodynamic forces of our aerial vehicle along with interaction forces that we generate with the attachment mechanisms resulted in something that was very mobile, very forceful and micro as well.” The researchers say the FlyCroTugs’ small size means they can navigate through snug spaces and fairly close to people, making them useful for search and rescue.

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world, but flying insects do many other things – such as walking, climbing, grasping, building – and social insects can even cooperate to multiply forces,” said Floreano, who was senior author on the paper.

“With this work, we show that small drones capable of anchoring to the environment and collaborating with fellow drones can perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.” Drones and other small flying robots may seem like all the rage these days but the FlyCroTugs – with their ability to navigate to remote locations, anchor and pull – fall into a more specific niche, according to Cutkosky.

“I’m excited at the prospect of increasingly incorporating these attachment mechanisms into the designer’s tool belt, enabling robots to take advantage of interaction forces with their environment and put these to useful ends.” Additional co-authors of this paper are Stefano Mintchev of EPFL and David Christensen, who was at Stanford at the time of the research.

These Wasp-Like Drones Lift Heavy Loads With Their Bellies

You might know wasps for their ability to brainwash cockroaches or inflict one of the most painful stings on Earth—one so powerful that the actual scientific advice to victims is to just lie down and scream until it passes.

If we want flying robots that can move massive objects without requiring them to be the size of pterodactyls, engineers will need to come up with new ways of lifting stuff.

While sitting on the ground, one version of the machine uses hooks to snag bumps and pits to anchor itself to the surface like a wasp’s claws do, while another version uses a pad to stick to a smooth surface.

“We're just trying to get these hooks lined up, one right next to another, and have them each be able to find their own bump and all pull together to generate larger forces than a single hook could,” says Stanford roboticist Matthew Estrada, who describes the machines today in Science Robotics.

The technology, which is inspired not by wasp feet but gecko feet, isn’t particularly new—Stanford researchers have already used it to, for instance, design a gripper that might one day grab space junk in orbit.

As long as the robots are sitting stationary on, say, the edge of a table, they can use van der Waals forces to winch objects far heavier than themselves.

“How are you going to build up exerting these forces in different directions to attain more dexterous tasks?” Instead of loading complex capabilities into one highly sophisticated and expensive robot, the solution in some cases may be to coordinate multiple bots instead.

Or at some point the researchers could combine the two techniques—hooks for grabbing onto rough materials and pads for smooth ones—in a single drone that works on a wider array of surfaces.

ME - Dissertation Defense: Matt Estrada

Enabling Multimodal Robots via Controllable Adhesives  Abstract: This talk discusses the design and analysis of robots that use adhesives to combine multiple modes of operation.

For example, one of these platforms, named FlyCroTugs, can navigate 3D environments, attach a tether to a heavy object, land and then pull that object with a force many times the robot's weight through the use of gecko-inspired adhesives.

A third example involves a gripper that can capture free-floating objects with a flexible-backed adhesives. Modeling the force constraints associated with the adhesives leads to corresponding dynamic constraints on the robots, in terms of their trajectories and velocities.

Winching is a Cinch for These Wasp-inspired Robots

A new design for tiny flying robots takes inspiration from wasps' ability to transport prey much heavier than themselves, by latching onto surfaces and dragging their catch.

Mimicking the insects' latch-and-tug technique, the micro-drones described in this study can pull heavy objects toward themselves with a force up to 40 times their own weight, without compromising their quick and nimble flight capabilities.

For example, when faced with the ragged terrain of an earthquake disaster zone, or the cluttered ruins of a collapsed building, robots that fly would be able to navigate the environment more smoothly and reach more remote locations than terrestrial robots.

They took inspiration from small, flying insects and the natural structures they use to accomplish a plethora of actions, including perching, climbing and dragging large prey back to a nest.

The researchers built wasp-inspired attachment mechanisms — microspines to mimic a wasp's claws and gecko-inspired adhesives to mimic sticky pads on the wasp's body — onto their palm-sized MAVs, named FlyCroTugs.

His team is working on preparing their MAVs to carry out more open-ended tasks in unknown environments, such as perceiving on the spot whether a surface is suitable for attachment, or calculating how many drones would be needed to lift a certain weight.

Stanford researchers modify small flying robots to haul heavy loads

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This tiny wasp-inspired drone can pull 40 times its own weight

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