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This transformer drone can be launched directly from the gun

Unmanned aerial vehicles are incredibly useful vehicles in the air, but their launch and flight can be difficult, especially in crowded, windy or emergency situations when speed is a factor. But a group of researchers from the University of California Institute of Technology and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory came up with an elegant and fun solution: to fire a cannon.

The engineering team is called SQUID, short for Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone, and looks like one of these Nerf whistling balls. It is less than a foot long (27 centimeters), weighs 18 ounces (530 grams) and has four spring-loaded rotor levers that snap into place in less than one tenth of a second after the drone is launched.

To get the SQUID in the air, researchers fired from a modified pneumatic baseball machine that gives an initial speed of about 35 miles per hour. In a research paper, the team notes that SQUID rotors begin to work approximately 200 milliseconds after launch and that the quadrocopter is “stable and freezes” in less than a second. It is fast.

Launching a drone from a ballistic point of view is certainly faster than doing it right away, but there is another big advantage SQUID has – flexibility. Ballistic launch means that SQUID can be launched from moving objects, as the researchers demonstrate, firing from the back of a pickup truck at a speed of 50 mph.

This startup script has many useful applications. For example, rescuers and military units can launch drones to monitor the area without stopping. Ballistic drones can also be useful for space exploration, as "daughter helicopters" are launched from landing and airships. “The helicopter significantly expands the range of rover data collection and allows you to access sites that the rover would consider impassable,” the researchers write.

A SQUID CAD model showing its ballistic configuration (left) and flight configuration (right).
Credit: Caltech / NASA JPL

As noted in the coverage IEEE Spectrum (where we noticed SQUID), this is not the first ballistic-launched drone ever made. But earlier examples, such as this Raytheon LOCUST device, used fixed wing designs instead of multi-rotor designs that have greater range and stability, but are less maneuverable and can be more difficult to fly.

However, the SQUID design looks like a winner, and its creators say they are currently studying larger prototypes and "mission-specific versions for Mars and Titan."

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