A Japanese lab created a flying robot that could change form to adapt to the needs of its environment. DRAGON flying and completely unfolded (looking like a seahorse). (Image via University of Japan)

Robots: the future of these mechanic creatures depends only on the level of imagination of engineers around the world. There are plenty of problems or challenges they could help solve in the world, so engineers are not only making them effective but also practical and sometimes look great. However, despite all the improvements made in the area of robotics, aerial robots’ evolution still meets an obstacle: they cannot fly indoors. The fact of the matter is between the various exits and the layout inside a room, flying a robot can easily become dangerous. To remedy that, there are a few options. One option is to make flying robots small enough to fly through a door or window and inside a closed space without running into an element of the décor. The problem with that option is that the robot would not be able to do anything interesting besides flying due to its size. Then, another solution would be to put robots inside a shield or protective case; but the robots would not be able to interact properly with their surroundings. So how to get a robot to be big and strong and yet small and agile?

A group of scientists and engineers at the University of Tokyo found the answer: a shape-shifting robot that they named DRAGON for Dual-rotor embedded multilink Robot with the Ability of multi-deGree-of-freedom aerial transformatiON. This robot is made of mechanic pieces that can move around and change the form of the robot. DRAGON can change from a square- shape to a snake-like shape (it is a dragon after all) while in flight. DRAGON’s elongated shape allows it to pass through small exits/ entrances any reverse back to any other shape it was programed to take. Made of connecting modules linked to another through a powered hinged joint, DRAGON can change direction easily no matter its shape thanks to the set of fan thrusters that compose the modules. The entire mechanic system is fueled by a pack of batteries attached to the robot’s spine and which provides enough power for the robot to stay in the air for about 3min. The operating system driving DRAGON is an Intel Euclid.

As an early prototype of the concept, DRAGON is not yet completed. In fact, the engineers reported only getting it to get off the ground, transform in the air and even go through a small gap. During the test, DRAGON flew in a straight line, an L shape and many other shapes. The best part of the shape-shifting mechanism is that DRAGON can autonomously decide whether to change shape based on the environment. With its four modules and eight motors, DRAGON could be considered a quadrotor or octorotor.

As DRAGON evolves, researchers believe that its application will become more specific and maybe even customizable. The form of the robot will evolve as well, including up to 12 modules which will make the machine even more versatile. There is a possibility that DRAGON will serve to pick up objects: the vision is to get its extremities act like fingers or the entire body to twist in order to carry some heavier loads. Like any robot, the hope is that DRAGON truly helps improve lives.

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