A team at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich has developed intelligent robots that can dock with each other and fly in a swarm.
The Distributed Flight Array robots locate each other using infrared and then lock together magnetically to create a sophisticated multi-propeller flight system.
Each hexagonal quadrocoptor robot, built of low-density expanded polypropylene (EPP) foam, has its own fixed-pitch mini-propeller and sensors. They are powered by a 50W brushless
DC motor with an off-the-shelf electronic speed controller which produces more than three Newtons of thrust.
Embedded in the chassis is a lithium-ion polymer battery that is capable of powering both the motors and the electronics for up to five minutes of flight.
The units can take off and land vertically and fly independently, but erratically. Small wheels let them crawl around on the ground to locate each other.
Once they've hooked up, though, they become capable of more efficient flight, communicating information from their altitude sensors via infrared to make flight more even by controlling roll and pitch.
If one fails, the others can compensate. And when they land, the robots can simply detach from each other and crawl away.
The developers are continuing to work on the system, with plans for larger-scale driving and flying experiments. "The goal is to have many modules assemble at random, fly to a predetermined altitude, hover, break apart, fall back down, and repeat the cycle," says the team.