Drones have the potential to be very useful in disaster scenarios by transporting food and water to people in need. But whenever you ask a drone to transport anything, anywhere, the bulk of what gets moved is the drone itself. Most delivery drones can carry only about 30 percent of their mass as payload, because most of their mass is both critical, like wings, and comes in the form of things that are essentially useless to the end user, like wings.
At the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) conference in Kyoto last week, EPFL researchers presented a paper describing a drone that can boost its payload of food from 30 percent to 50 percent of its mass. It does so with the ingenious use of wings made from rice cakes that contain the caloric equivalent of an average, if unbalanced, breakfast.
The reason why this drone exists is to work toward the effective and efficient delivery of food to someone who, for whatever reason, really, really needs food and is not in a position to gain access to it in any other way. The idea is that you could fly this drone directly to them and keep them going for an extra day or two. You obviously won’t get the drone back afterward (because its wings will have been eaten off), but that’s a small price to pay for potentially keeping someone alive via the delivery of vital calories.
While this is just a prototype, the half-edible drone does actually fly, achieving speeds of about 10 meters per second with the addition of a motor, some servos to actuate the tail surfaces for control, and a small battery. The next step is to figure out a way to make as many of those nonedible pieces out of edible materials instead, as well as finding a way to carry a payload (like water) in an edible container.
This drone is just one application of a broader European research initiative called RoboFood, which seeks to develop edible robots in a way that maximizes both performance and nutritional value. Edible sensing, actuation, and computation are all parts of this project, and the researchers (led by Professor Dario Floreano at EPFL) can now start to focus on some of those more challenging edible components.