Fold it, stretch it, grip it! An origami-inspired arm gives drones grip

You don’t need arms to fly but engineers from Seoul National University in South Korea have developed a robotic appendage designed to give drones a better grip on the world. Inspired by origami, the innovative arm can be folded for transport and self-assembles into a rigid appendage when it’s needed for use.

In recent years, the ancient art of calculated folding has inspired designs for spacecraft, artificial muscles, and Kevlar shields, thanks to its ability to save space without significantly compromising functionality.

“Imagine using an origami-inspired design,” Kyu Jin Cho, a Seoul National University roboticist who led the project, told Digital Trends. “To make them easily foldable, the structure becomes weak. If you make the structures strong, they are either heavy or not easy to fold. Our design is lightweight and easy to fold and unfold, but can become very stiff. Meeting all these requirements at the same time expands the usage of origami designs. Not just the drone arm we have shown, but imagine a robot that folds itself into a packable size and, when needed, unfolds by itself to become a robot.”

The arm developed by Cho and his team is made up of seven actuators and a single wire that enables it to shift from folded to extended, sort of like an umbrella being opened and closed. When unfolded it can total 27.5 inches in length. This allows it to attach to drones, where it can remain packed during transport and flight, only to unfurl when needed. The arm can sport a gripper or camera on the end to suit its needs.

“If you attach a robotic arm to a drone you can now pick up stuff and perform various manipulations with the drone,” Cho said. “But attaching an arm will make the drone heavy, and bulky. This arm will solve this issue making it easier for drones to attach arms.”

In a video accompanying a paper published last week in the journal Science Robotics, Cho and his team’s drone can be seen flying with the arms packed neatly underneath, before extending downward a few times the length of the drone. The video shows the drone arm performing a number of tasks, including shooting video with a camera and picking up an object from a ditch.

Though the clever design offers a glimpse into the future capabilities of drones, Cho stressed that this is just an initial concept and his team will be working to strengthen and add joints to the arm moving forward.

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