Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology are working on an autonomous flying vehicle that is not as good at avoiding crashes as it is at surviving them, for a reason. The idea is simple. An autonomous aircraft that must carry multiple onboard sensors and computer systems to avoid accidents will lose payload and endurance to those systems. It will also be bigger and cost more than a vehicle that doesn't carry those systems. As an alternate approach, the Swiss researchers are working to create a simple vehicle that is more efficient and more resilient. The design they have isn't just designed to survive crashes, it's designed to pick itself up and set off, again, after the crash.
The Swiss designers say they took inspiration from birds and insects that sometimes crash into things but mostly recover and continue on their way. All the key components of the Swiss design are protected by a lightweight, flexible carbon-fiber cage. The cage is designed to absorb impacts without transferring energy to the vehicle's most delicate components. The researchers have so far designed an oblong vehicle with an active recovery system. (See video at right.) That system is made up of four legs that can extend to right the vehicle if it ends up lying on its side. They hope the vehicle will prove more practical in navigating tight, uneven spaces than costlier flying vehicles. Japanese researchers have advanced a similar idea with a spherical design.