Drones

Drone tech: The smallest, strangest and smartest UAVs around

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

The rapid evolution of drone technology is leading to some innovative UAV designs. Beyond toy quadcopters like the Revell Control Nano Hex and high-end flyers like the Yuneec Typhoon H, there are foldable drones, passenger drones, LEGO drones, even edible drones.

Yes. UAVs you can eat. More on that in a moment.

Drones come in all manner of shapes and sizes. Some are going to be big. We’ve already talked about the huge eHANG 184 and Volocopter concepts, which are designed to carry people. Uber has plans to develop airborne passenger drones and is reportedly researching vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology.

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The Volocopter could usher in a new UberCHOPPER age of self-flying air taxis.

Having already trialled on demand helicopter pickups in 2015 with UberCHOPPER, it’s the logical next step.

At the other end of the scale, the Mavic Pro is not only DJI’s first foldable drone, it’s one of its smallest. The company says that it “folds down as small as a bottle of water” and, with a 4.7 mile range, 40 mph top speed and a 4K camera, it doesn’t cut many technical corners.

But it’s still huge compared to the Aerix VIDIUS HD. This tiny quadcopter claims to be the world’s smallest live streaming HD video drone.

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The Aerix VIDIUS HD claims to be the world’s smallest camera-equipped drone.

Did you know that you can now build your own working drone out of LEGO?

Flybrix sells DIY kits that let you snap together a drone using simple electronics and LEGO bricks. “Flybrix Kits let you easily build any drone you dream up,” says the company. “After you master the basics, you’ll be ready to experiment with your own designs.”

Drones are also evolving beyond traditional copter designs. The DelftAcopter might look like a model biplane, but it can also hover like a helicopter. All using one propeller. This hybrid approach means that the drone can take off vertically, then transition into fast, fixed-wing flight to travel efficiently over long distances.

Built by Delft University of Technology in Holland, the DelftAcopter is autonomous, capable of flying for an hour and features onboard computer vision to help it avoid obstacles at landing sites. It’s designed to deliver medical supplies to disaster areas, but its flexibility would make it an ideal urban delivery drone.

Another smart UAV solution is the POUNCER, a drone designed to deliver aid to disaster-hit areas by air. With its wings loaded with food and water, the POUNCER features a pre-formed shell that can be reused to provide shelter, while the wooden airframe can be burnt safely to cook food.

Future versions of the drone tech could be constructed to be entirely edible, built from “extruded vegetable spars” that have a similar tensile strength to wood.

Our final drone tech innovation tackles the one thing that hampers UAV performance — battery life. Popular models like the DJI Phantom 4 can only fly for around 30 minutes. But the solution might not be larger capacity battery cells. It could be wireless power.

Imagine a drone without a battery. A drone that could theoretically fly forever, fuelled by electricity beamed to it using electromagnetic waves. Dr. Sam Aldhaher of the Imperial College London has demonstrated such a concept in the lab and the wireless power transfer principle isn’t much different from those being worked on by TechNovator and WattUp.

The catch? This approach only works over small distances and above a suitable charging strip. But perhaps it’s a teasing glimpse of a future where wireless power transfer systems send speedy, location-aware, obstacle-avoiding super drones across our skies.

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