These tiny wasp-inspired drones can open a door 40 times their weight, and could one day be used in disaster zones

IEEE Spectrum/YouTubeThese two microdrones can open a door together.
  • Researchers have built tiny microdrones capable of tugging open a door 40 times their weight.
  • They took inspiration from predatory wasps, which can drag large prey along the ground.
  • One researcher said the technology could be adapted for more complex tasks such as moving debris or retrieving objects from disaster zones.

Researchers have built microdrones, capable of tugging open a door 40 times their weight, by studying the biology of predatory wasps.

Robotics researchers at Stanford University and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland wanted to find a way for tiny microdrones to exert “forceful tugging,” so they turned to biomimetics – meaning they took inspiration from the natural world.

They observed that wasps are able to carry away large prey by dragging it along the ground. They used this behaviour as a model when creating tiny microdrones, which they named “FlyCroTugs.”

Wasp caterpillarKatoosha/ShutterstockPredatory wasps are able to drag prey like this caterpillar along the ground.

The drones are equipped with cables and winches, and can attach the cable to an object and then anchor themselves to the ground before starting to spool the cable towards themselves.

Using this technology, two FlyCroTugs, each weighing 100 grams, were able to open a door 40 times their mass.

You can watch the microdrones opening the door here:

Part of the FlyCroTug’s design took its cue from another animal. Famous for clinging to walls with their sticky feet, the gecko lizard provided inspiration for the drones’ adhesive.

“Teams of these drones could work cooperatively to perform more complex manipulation tasks,” Stanford researcher Matt Estrada told IEEE Spectrum, a magazine dedicated to engineering and applied sciences.

“We demonstrated opening a door, but this approach could be extended to turning a ball valve, moving a piece of debris, or retrieving an object of interest from a disaster zone.”

There are still a few hurdles to overcome before the tiny drones could be used in the field. At the moment their battery only lasts for five minutes. The FlyCroTug also requires a human to pilot it, as the researchers have yet to develop any sensing or AI systems for it.

You can read the researchers’ full paper on building the FlyCroTug drone here.

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