What is a seedpod but a perfectly iterated payload delivery system?

Biomimicry, the field of making robots inspired by lifeforms, typically looks to the mobility of animals, but a project by roboticists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design instead turns to plants for borrowed inspiration. With five drone gliders held together in a single harness, the project can gently distribute a handful of small robots across an area, as gracefully as a tree releasing potential offspring into the wind.

Before getting into the specifics of this research, it’s worth noting that the Office of Naval Research and NASA have already invested in CICADA expendable gliding drone swarms as a sensor platform. With cheap electronics and transmission, gliding drones could cover a field and provide everything from meteorological data to perhaps even chemical or bioweapon detection. There are few systems like this in development, despite the fact that ONR has been looking to develop CICADA for well over a decade.

All of this is what makes “Dynamics and Control of a Collaborative and Separating Descent of Samara Autorotating Wings” so interesting. While the existing CICADA drones are mostly passive gliders, they are still steered into place via inertial navigation and control flaps in each wing, like a traditional plane or glider. The Samara Autorotating Wings, meanwhile, add just one flap to their one-winged design, which the roboticists found was enough to meaningfully control the vehicle’s gentle descent.

Together, five of the samara-drones can be linked in a single launching device, descending as one and steering together, until it is time for each pod to spin free and find a new fertile landing site.

Among the advantages of the design, as noted in IEEE Spectrum, is the ability to descend vertically, allowing entry down vertical shafts before spreading into more open spaces beyond the entrance. That could work for certain underground environments or clearings in forests, as a payload-bearing samara-drone could descend below the tree line and then scatter into otherwise hard to surveil nooks and crannies. At present, the samara-drone are limited to around a 30 gram payload, likely enough for a small sensor.

While the researchers focused on improved control and speed of the drones, military planners and designers interested in taking advantage of the descent possibilities afforded by the form could think of payloads to deliver by seedpod rotation. A microphone that transmits what it can hear from inside a cave entrance, a camera that tracks movement from below a treetop canopy, thermal sensors picking up on the movement of people, vehicles, or wildlife. Radios that eavesdrop on local short-ranges transmissions.

Sensors, which for so long were wedded to vehicles, can now be dispersed as an effect unto themselves, like seeds carefully tossed into the wind.

Watch the samara-drones spin down below:

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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