French researchers have created an aerial robot that can morph in flight and change its wingspan. The world-first development could benefit search and rescue, exploratory, and mapping operations which take place in tight spaces and complex terrain.

Created at France’s Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences (which is affiliated with the French National Center for Scientific Research at Aix-Marseille Université), the Quad-Morphing copter draws inspiration from birds and their ability to maneuver quickly during flight to clear obstacles with the ability to reorient its arms in flight.

The new robot is equipped with two horizontal arms, each one with an upwards-facing propeller at either end for helicopter-like flight. A system of elastic and rigid wires allows the robot to change the orientation of its arms in flight so that they are either perpendicular or parallel to its central axis, effectively halving its wingspan, all while flying at a speed of 9 km/h.

The development is testament to a growing expertise in robotics and the vibrant aeronautics industry in Aix-Marseille-Provence. The area has become a centre for excellence in helicopters, drones, light aircraft and green aviation, as well as satellites and flight simulators and flight testing. The sector’s €5.5 billion in annual turnover is boosted by the SAFE competitiveness cluster that brings together 600 businesses and organisations from the aerospace and security sector.

The region’s aeronautics ecosystem also benefits from a network of research centres and innovation labs dedicated to developing aerospace technology and new materials. These include: TEAM Henri-Fabre’s Technocentre focused on research into the materials and the processes of the future; The Jean Sarrail Aeronautics Center/ISTRES, which provides a world-class environment for tests and simulations, and the Center for Drone Excellence (CED), which pools the expertise of manufacturers, researchers, and universities in its mission to become an international leader in drone innovation. It works with the Provence Remotely Piloted Aircraft System Network and the SAFE aerospace and security cluster to create synergies across the sector.

In its current indoor testing setup the Quad-Morphing’s arm-rotation is determined by a 3D localization system incorporating an array of stationary cameras that track the drone as it flies. However,  researchers have also equipped the robot with a miniature camera that can take 120 pictures per second which will ultimately allow the aerial robot to independently assess the size of the gap before it and fold its wings accordingly. Flight testing with the new camera will begin this month.



(via CNRS, Invest In Provence, New Atlas)

(Featured image: The Quad-Morphing aerial robot, Valentin Rivière and Stéphane Viollet, Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences (CNRS/ Aix-Marseille Université).