The niche for micro and nano drones is limited. Apart from capturing average images, these tiny drones can hardly lift a payload or exert a strong force. They are nifty, fast and compact, which make them very efficient UAVs but the lack of power to lift payloads and perform impactful tasks is inhibiting this category of drones to dominate the consumer as well as the industrial market. Scientists from the University of Stanford and EFPL: Switzerland has been toiling away to change this norm. They have developed drones which can pull forty times their own weight. A drone, which can comfortably fit in the palm of a hand is now capable of tugging almost four kilograms of weight.

The drone uses interchangeable adhesive on the base which helps its microspines in digging into rough materials like stucco, carpet, or rubble and ridged silicone for grabbing onto the glass. This design is inspired by the morphology of gecko feet, commonly found on reptiles like lizards. The microspines and ridged silicone pull only in one direction which means that they can easily be detached. Putting in place the design, micro-drones can pull above their own 100-gram weight which equals to 4 kilograms (8lbs). This is nearly 40 times their own weight which makes it a remarkable feat.

A schematic showing the working of these micro-drones.

These drones have currently demonstrated the ability to perform simple tasks such as opening doors and pulling heavy bottles. Matthew Estrada, a PhD candidate at Stanford’s Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Lab and co-author on the paper said that the inspiration came from nature. The team studied smaller insects as equivalent of micro-drones and observed how wasps particularly are able to move prey much heavier than themselves.

The drones opening a door.

“Wasps quite often will want to grab large prey and move it back to their den,” Estrada said. “But, if they don’t have enough muscle power to fly with their cargo they have to drag it along the ground, hooking on with their claws and moving it bit by bit.”

These winch-equipped micro-drones, named FlyCroTugs, work exactly the same way.

The usability of such drones are being questioned, however. Estrada explains that even the simple task of getting the drone to pull the door, required construction and placement of precise hooks on the door handle and careful maneuvering of the drone. This is a still a concept in development but the idea behind micro-drones interacting and manipulating spaces is exciting. As the project progresses, squadrons of cheap and disposable micro-drones may be able to work together to clear out rubble for larger robots in disaster stricken areas.

Watch how these tiny drones demonstrate over-the-counter strength: