A group of researchers from Caltech University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created something they’re calling the ‘Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone’ (SQUID). It is a “ballistic launching drone” that unfolds at an altitude after it launches out of a cannon. The NASA drone weighs about 18 ounces (530 grams) and is under a foot long (27 centimeters). Furthermore, it has four spring-loaded rotor arms that snap into place in less than a tenth of a second after the drone is launched. The researchers fire the drone out of a modified pneumatic baseball pitching machine, to get it airborne. It gives an initial speed of around 35 miles per hour. In a research paper, the team notes that SQUID’s rotors start spinning 200 milliseconds after launch and that the quadcopter is “stable and hovering” in less than a second.

Moreover, it can even be launched out of the back of a truck going 50 miles per hour. The design seeks to make it both faster and safer to launch a quadcopter. The bigger advantage of this is that SQUID has its own flexibility i.e. easier to move. In addition to this, one does not need a takeoff pad, and the rotors don’t begin spinning until the drone is already at altitude.

The fastest launch mechanism in a drone

NASA drone SQUID
The NASA drone has the fastest launch time.

This type of launch has a lot of useful applications. Emergency responders and military units could launch drones to surveil the area without stopping. The main reason for this is that the researchers have proposed this as a safer, quicker and more reliable method of launching a drone. They also envision the technology being used by a planetary rover, which could fire off an onboard drone and send it on a “reconnaissance” mission.

Ballistic drones could also be good for space exploration, with “daughter rotorcraft” launched from landers and airships. “A rotorcraft greatly expands the data collection range of a rover and allows access to the sites that a rover would find impassible,” write the researchers. Its creators say that they are now exploring larger prototypes and “mission-specific versions for Mars and Titan.”