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Watch this damage-proof drone crumple and re-form after a crash

Why it matters to you

Some of the features could one day work their way into consumer drones to make them more durable and less likely to break upon impact.

Whether you’re a newbie drone pilot or a more experienced operator with hours of flying experience under your belt, there’s always a risk that your precious copter might tumble out of the sky following an unwise maneuver, or even because of mechanical failure. There’s also the chance of an unexpected bird attack, or someone deliberately targeting it with a projectile like this guy from medieval times.

If your machine does ever happen to come crashing to the ground, chances are you’ll be taking it home in several shattered pieces, your drone-flying days put on hold until you sort out the unfortunate mess.

Interested in designing a more durable drone that’s free of a bulky cage or other protective structures that we’ve seen before, researchers from Floreano Lab, NCCR Robotics, and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) recently turned to the insect world for inspiration.

Having noted the flexibility and durability of insect wings — and how the flying bugs never seem to be particularly put out if they slam headfirst into an obstacle such as a window — the team wondered if it could apply such characteristics to drone design.

It came up with an intriguing solution comprising a quadcopter with a thin fiberglass external frame and arms held together by a central magnet.

The all-important frame is only 0.3 mm thick but extremely soft and flexible, making it able to withstand knocks and more serious crashes without breaking into little bits.

More: Avian-inspired drone alters its feathered wings to boost speed, maneuverability

The team says the magnet is designed and positioned in such a way as to keep the copter rigid and stable while in flight. But when a collision occurs, the magnetic connections automatically give way and cause the drone to temporarily deform so it can absorb the shock of the crash landing while protecting the machine’s vital components.

Once the drone comes to rest, elastic bands that keep the magnet in place force the frame to re-form, allowing the operator to once again send the machine skyward.

Dronemakers may draw on the team’s innovative design for inspiration on how to create damage-proof machines, a characteristic that would provide a useful back-up for when obstacle-avoidance technology, which is improving all the time, fails to prevent a catastrophic collision.