Drones are incredibly useful aerial machines, but retrieving them and flying can be difficult, especially in tight, windy, or emergency situations when speeding is a factor. But a team of researchers from the university of Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has an elegant and oh-so-fun solution: to fire the damn thing in a cannon.
Creating engineers is called SQUID, short for the Streamline Fast Unfolding Investigation Drone, and it sounds like one of Nerf's whistle balls . It is under one foot long (27 centimeters), weighs 18 ounces (530 grams), and has four spring loaded weapons entering the area less than one tenth of a second after the launch drone.
To retrieve the SQUID plane, researchers burned it from a modified pneumatic baseball pitching machine, giving it an initial speed of about 35 miles per hour. In a research paper, the team noticed that SQUID rotors start running around 200 milliseconds after launch and the quadcopter will "steady and hover" in less than a second. That's fast.
Launching a drone ballistically is certainly faster than making it from a stable, but another major advantage that SQUID has is its flexibility. A ballistic launch meant the SQUID could be fired from moving objects, as researchers showed by firing it from behind a pick-up truck at 50 miles per hour.
This type of launch scenario has all the useful applications. Emergency responders and military units may launch drones to monitor the area without interruption, for example. Ballistic drones can also be great for space exploration, with "daughter rotorcraft" being launched from landers and airships. "A rotorcraft greatly extends the scope of data collection of a rover, and allows access to sites that find a rover that cannot," the researchers write. ).
Credit: Caltech / NASA JPL
As mentioned in the coverage of IEEE Spectrum (where we saw SQUID), this is not the first ballistically launched drone. But earlier examples, such as this LOCUS unit from Raytheon, used fixed wing rather than multi-rotor designs, which had wider range and stability but were less maneuverable and could be difficult fly.
The SQUID design looks like a winner, though, and the creators say they are now exploring larger prototypes and "mission-defined versions for Mars and Titan."