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Drone propellors are great at slicing fingers — this $20 sensor prevents that

The Safety Rotor - an Electromechanical Rotor Safety System for Drones

We love quadcopters and the plethora of things they can be used for, from high-quality filming to deliveries. However, you don’t have to be a tech expert to be aware of the potential risks posed by flying drones propelled by spinning rotor blades. Should drones truly become the mainstream technologies they could be, it’s going to be important to find ways of ensuring they play nice with their surroundings.

That’s where a new project from researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, comes into play. They have developed a $20 sensor add-on which will stop a drone’s rotors if your fingers get too close to the blade — and do so within just 0.06 seconds.

“The safety rotor is an additional piece of technology added to a quadcopter drone’s rotors to allow dangerous rotor strikes to be detected and mitigated before they cause injury,” Dr. Paul Pounds, a researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. “When a rotor gets close to a person or object, a passively spinning plastic hoop touches first, causing the hoop to slow down or stop. By measuring the hoop speed with an optical sensor, we can detect the impending collision and apply a special electro-dynamic braking technique that uses the motor’s stored magnetic field energy to slow and stop itself extremely rapidly.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The add-on doesn’t add much weight or cost to the drone and unlike other safety solutions — such as a surrounding cage — it doesn’t compromise maneuverability or endurance. “We are eager to see them put into use to prevent injuries, especially to children,” Pounds continued. “People mistake quadcopters as toys, when really the larger ones can be quite dangerous. As such, children are overrepresented as victims of rotor blade injury and we want to put a stop to it.”

In addition, he noted that the sensor could help protect both drones and their surroundings from damage. For example, a drone carrying out inspection of sensitive equipment could be easily fitted with the technology.

“We are very eager to collaborate with commercial developers of drones to incorporate the technology into their products,” Pounds continued. “We would prefer that this safety equipment comes baked in from the get-go, rather than as an add-on, but we have also considered producing them so that people can add protection to existing aircraft. Eventually, we would like to see this technology become standard on all hobbyist quadcopters — like a seatbelt for drones.”

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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