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Soft Drone-Like Robot Morphs From Ground Vehicle to Aircraft in Just a Few Seconds

Nature is a constant source of inspiration for researchers and has helped us countless times to come up with groundbreaking technologies. One recent example is Virginia Tech’s morphing drone, a small autonomous structure that can turn from a land vehicle into a flying quadcopter and back, in just a few seconds.
Virginia Tech morphing drone 6 photos
Photo: Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering/YouTube
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The creation belongs to a team led by Michael Bartlett, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering. They succeeded in developing a soft robot using rubber, metal, and temperature, with the latter helping morph the materials and fix them into place without using motors.

There are lots of examples of organisms that reshape in order to perform certain activities, from octopi to humans who flex their muscles when they have to carry a load. The challenging thing for the researchers was to find a material that can not just change shape, but also hold it for as long as necessary and then return to the original one. They ended up with liquid metal.

The exoskeleton is made of LMPA (low melting point alloy) embedded inside a rubber skin, with this composite being able to quickly hold the desired shape when stretched. For the structure to be able to return to its original shape, researchers incorporated soft, tendril-like heaters that convert the metal to liquid at 140 F (60 degrees C), reversing the stretching and pulling the material back into its original shape.

Virginia Tech’s team is very optimistic about the applications this technology can have when combining the material with motors, onboard power, and control, claiming it can be used for developing multifunctional robots. And as proof, they created a drone that can autonomously morph from ground vehicle to aircraft. Not just that, but they also made a small submarine that can retrieve objects from an aquarium.

You can get a better idea of how it all works in the video below.

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About the author: Cristina Mircea
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Cristina’s always found writing more comfortable to do than speaking, which is why she chose print over broadcast media in college. When she’s not typing, she also loves riding non-motorized two-wheelers, going on hikes with her dog, and rocking her electric guitars.
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