University of Tokyo Researchers Create Transforming DRAGON Drone

The DRAGON can autonomously decide which shape would serve it best to fit through narrow gaps or complex environments.

JSK Lab/University of Tokyo

Researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Jouhou System Kougaku (JSK) Lab have developed a modular, transforming drone called DRAGON, which stands for “Dual-Rotor Embedded Multilink Robot with the Ability of Multi-Degree-of-Freedom Aerial Transformation.” While the corresponding acronym here is quite the reach, the DRAGON’s ability to elongate itself to form a square or snake through dense environments while the ducted fans keep it afloat is quite impressive.

According to IEEE Spectrum, DRAGON can autonomously conclude which kind of shape would be most efficient and productive when faced with space constraints or oddly-shaped environments. Instead of focusing on small unmanned aerial vehicles that could naturally fit through densely packed rooms or surroundings, JSK researchers tried to develop an agile drone that could traverse various territories without having to reach miniature or nano-drone size restrictions.

DRAGON is comprised of numerous modules, each of which has dual fans serving as thrusters, which can point in any direction required. These modules are connected to each other by hinged joints, which means one module can turn and rotate as it needs without affecting the others. Think of this as a snake which could move sections of its body independently of the others, or how an owl can fully rotate its head without moving its body. 

JSK Lab, University of Tokyo

While a battery pack provides DRAGON with three minutes of flight time, the software letting it run autonomously is built on Intel’s Euclid software development kit (SDK). The prototype seen here is comprised of four modules, with the Euclid running along its spine, regardless of shapes being formed. Currently, DRAGON can fly as a straight line, a square, an “L” shape, in a zig-zag shape, or a spiral. 

When most drones look the same and have pretty similar movements to offer, DRAGON’s highly modular transformative capabilities (which aren’t even past the prototype stage) are pretty impressive. Drones are becoming more fluid, and that’s exciting.

As you can see from the footage above, DRAGON can decide on its own how best to fit through certain gaps, transforming here into part of a spiral to snake through the opening. Perhaps most staggering is the notion that the prototype seen above is only the beginning, and a small part of what JSK researchers are envisioning for this DRAGON tech future. 

In their minds, modular arms like the one above will merely serve as one of a dozen flying DRAGON arms, which could all manipulate surroundings by picking up objects and wrapping around things. As Fan Shi, JSK Lab member explained, DRAGON is “a breakthrough in hardware design which, in a beautiful way, connects a manipulation arm with a ducted fan-driven aerial robot.” Shi added that this drone is “an ideal platform for aerial manipulation.” 

As it stands, the use cases for DRAGON’s particular hardware design and corresponding software allowing it to autonomously manipulate its body are yet vague and unclear. That’s not to say this isn’t exciting, because innovative drone tech is often confusing at first, before scenarios that could benefit from said drone tech reveal themselves in time. 

Allowing multiple DRAGONs to scan the ventilation shafts of a skyscraper for hazardous materials, autonomously, for example, immediately springs to mind as a potential scenario that companies could use this for. Hopefully, we’ll see these ingenious JSK researchers continue to refine the DRAGON into something stunningly useful, which, as always, will be obvious in hindsight.