Fabricate drones with a wide range

This fall’s new Federal Aviation Administration regulations have made drone flight easier than ever for both companies and consumers. But what if the drones out on the market aren’t exactly what you want?

A new system from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is the first to allow users to design, simulate, and build their own custom drone. Users can change the size, shape, and structure of their drone based on the specific needs they have for payload, cost, flight time, battery usage, and other factors.

To demonstrate, researchers created a range of unusual-looking drones, including a five-rotor “pentacopter” and a rabbit-shaped “bunnycopter” with propellers of different sizes and rotors of different heights.

“This system opens up new possibilities for how drones look and function,” says MIT Professor Wojciech Matusik, who oversaw the project in CSAIL’s Computational Fabrication Group. “It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach for people who want to make and use drones for particular purposes.”

The interface lets users design drones with different propellers, rotors, and rods. It also provides guarantees that the drones it fabricates can take off, hover and land — which is no simple task considering the intricate technical trade-offs associated with drone weight, shape, and control.

“For example, adding more rotors generally lets you carry more weight, but you also need to think about how to balance the drone to make sure it doesn’t tip,” says PhD student Tao Du, who was first author on a related paper about the system. “Irregularly-shaped drones are very difficult to stabilize, which means that they require establishing very complex control parameters.”

Du and Matusik co-authored a paper with PhD student Adriana Schulz, postdoc Bo Zhu, and Assistant Professor Bernd Bickel of IST Austria. It will be presented next week at the annual SIGGRAPH Asia conference in Macao, China.

Today’s commercial drones only come in a small range of options, typically with an even number of rotors and upward-facing propellers. But there are many emerging use cases for other kinds of drones. For example, having an odd number of rotors might create a clearer view for a drone’s camera, or allow the drone to carry objects with unusual shapes.

Designing these less conventional drones, however, often requires expertise in multiple disciplines, including control systems, fabrication, and electronics.