Researchers from EPFL and Stanford have developed small drones that can land and then move objects up to 40 times their weight with the help of powerful winches, gecko adhesives and microspines.

Developed jointly by Stanford University and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the FlyCroTugs – flying, micro, tugging robots – came out of the laboratories run by Mark Cutkosky, the Fletcher Jones Chair in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, and Dario Floreano, at EPFL’s School of Engineering (LIS). Equipped with advanced gripping technology – inspired by gecko and insect feet – and able to interact with the world around them, these robots can work together to lasso a door handle and tug the door open.

FlyCroTugs are micro air vehicles that the researchers modified so that they can anchor themselves to various surfaces using gecko adhesives and microspines. Thanks to these mechanisms, FlyCroTugs can pull objects up to 40 times their weight, such as door handles or, in a rescue scenario, cameras and water bottles.

Inspired by nature

“People tend to think of drones as machines that fly and observe the world. But flying insects do many other things, such as walking, climbing, grasping and building. Social insects can even work together and combine their strength,” says Dario Floreano, the study’s lead senior author. “Through our research, we show that small drones are capable of anchoring themselves to surfaces around them and cooperating with fellow drones. This enables them to perform tasks typically assigned to humanoid robots or much larger machines.”