Drones are extremely useful machines in the air, but lifting and flying can be difficult, especially in crowded, windy or emergency scenarios when speed is a factor. But a group of scientists from Caltech University and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory came up with an elegant and oh-so entertaining solution: shoot the damn thing out of the gun.
Engineering work is called SQUID, short for Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone, and looks more like one of those that sands Nerf's balls. It is under the foot long (27 centimeters), weighs 18 ounces (530 grams) and has four spring-loaded rotor arms that snap into place in less than a tenth of a second after the robot has started.
To get a SQUID aircraft, scientists throw it out of a modified pneumatic baseball pitcher that gives it an initial speed of approximately 35 miles per hour. In the research report, the team notes that SQUID rotors start to run approximately 200 milliseconds after launch and that the Quadcopter is "stable and hovering" in less than a second. That's fast.
A robot ballistic start is certainly faster than stopping it, but another big advantage of SQUID is its flexibility. Ballistic start means that SQUID can be fired from moving objects, as scientists show by firing from the back of the pickup at a speed of 50 miles per hour.
This kind of launch scenario has a variety of useful applications. For example, emergency units and military units can launch unmanned aircraft to observe the area without stopping. Ballistic unmanned aircraft could also be useful in space exploration by removing "daughter rotorcraft" from "landing and airships". "The rotorcraft greatly extends the scope of rover data collection and allows access to sites that would be considered impassable to the roadway," the researchers say.
As reported in the coverage of IEEE Spectrum (where we recorded SQUID), this is not the first ballistic launch robot ever made. But earlier examples, like this Raytheon LOCUST, used solid wings instead of multi-rotor designs that have greater reach and stability but are less manoeuvrable and difficult to fly.
However, the SQUID design looks like a winner and its creators say they are now exploring larger prototypes and "mission-specific versions for Mars and Titan."