Aerial Dragon Robot Reconfigures Itself Into a Flying Manipulator

A couple years ago, we wrote about the Dual-rotor embedded multilink Robot with the Ability of multi-deGree-of-freedom aerial transformatiON—Dragon, of course. It’s one of the wildest drones we’ve ever seen, consisting of four pairs of gimbaled, ducted fans, with each pair linked together through a two-axis actuated joint, making it physically flexible in flight to a crazy degree.

Dragon is one of those robots with literally more degrees of freedom than it knows what to do with—in the sense that the hardware is all there. But the trick is getting it to use that hardware to do things that are actually useful in a reliable way. In 2018, Dragon was just learning how to transform itself to fit through small spaces, but now it’s able to adapt its entire structure to manipulate and grasp objects.

While we’ve seen a bunch of different flavors of drones with arms stapled to them, making the structure of the drone itself into the manipulator is a much more elegant solution.

In a couple of recent papers (in the International Journal of Robotics Research and IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters), Moju Zhao and colleagues from the University of Tokyo present some substantially updated capabilities for Dragon. It’s much more stable now, although as you can see in the video, Zhao seems to not be totally sure how resilient it is: