Roboticists are putting a tremendous amount of time and effort into finding the right combination of sensors and algorithms that will keep their drones from smashing into things. It’s a very difficult problem: With a few exceptions, you’ve got small platforms that move fast and don’t have the payload capability for the kind of sensors or computers that you really need to do real-time avoidance of things like trees or power lines. And without obstacle avoidance, how will we ever have drones that can deliver new athletic socks to our doorstep in 30 minutes or less?
At the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab, where they’ve been working very, very hard at getting quadrotors to fly through windows without running into them, Yash Mulgaonkar, Luis Guerrero-Bonilla, Anurag Makineni, and Professor Vijay Kumar have come up with what seems to be a much simpler solution for navigation and obstacle avoidance with swarms of small aerial robots: Give them a roll cage, and just let them run into whatever is in their way. Seriously, it’ll be fine!