Scientists unlock wireless charging for airborne drones

Using inductive coupling, scientists have made a breakthrough that allows them to wirelessly transfer power to a drone while it is still flying. The technology could open up a host of possibilities, including allowing drones to fly indefinitely, simply hovering over a ground support vehicle when in need of a recharge.

Inductive coupling is a concept originally demonstrated over 100 years ago by Nikola Tesla, the principle being that by tuning two copper coils into each other with electronics, you can enable the wireless exchange of power at a certain frequency.

Inductive coupling has been experimented with for decades, but until now researchers have failed to utilise the technology to wirelessly power flying devices.

The researchers behind the breakthrough, from Imperial College London, demonstrated their method by altering the electronics and removing the battery of an off-the-shelf quadcopter drone.

A receiving antenna was made by encircling the drone’s casing with a copper foil ring, and a transmitter device on the ground was made out of a circuit board and connected to electronics and a power source, creating a magnetic field. The researchers believe that this is the first demonstration to show how this wireless charging method can be efficiently used with a flying object, and expect it to open up a range of potential applications.

“Imagine using a drone to wirelessly transmit power to sensors on things such as bridges to monitor their structural integrity,” explained Professor Paul Mitcheson, from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial College London. “This would cut out humans having to reach these difficult-to-access places to re-charge them.

“Another application could include implantable miniature diagnostic medical devices, wirelessly powered from a source external to the body. This could enable new types of medical implants to be safely recharged, and reduce the battery size to make these implants less invasive.”

Images courtesy of Imperial College London

Images courtesy of Imperial College London

Drones are currently limited in their commercial usage by the distance they can travel and the duration for which they can do so.

Despite growing possibilities for usage, the limited availability of power and re-charging requirements means that it is hard to make full use of drones in their capacity for roles such as surveillance or search and rescue. The development of efficient wireless power transfer technology would solve these endurance problems and enable a wide range of advancements.

“In the future, we may also be able to use drones to re-charge science equipment on Mars, increasing the lifetime of these billion dollar missions,” added Mitcheson.

“We have already made valuable progress with this technology and now we are looking to take it to the next level.”

For now, the technology is still very much in its infancy and the Imperial team’s technology only allows the drone to fly ten centimetres above the magnetic field transmission source.

However, they are now exploring collaborations with industrial partners, and have estimated that a commercially available product could be ready in a year.

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Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”