A young robotics engineer has developed a perching mechanism that could be invaluable to the field of Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs. Mirko Kovac, of Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), envisions a system wherein swarms of tiny robotic gliders would be deployed over scenes of disasters, such as forest fires or earthquakes. The gliders would fly straight into the sides of vantage points, such as tall buildings or trees, whereupon they would perch on that surface and transmit data to remote observers via cameras or other sensors. They could even free themselves, to fly on to another location.

The heart of Dr. Kovac’s perching mechanism consists of two sharp prongs mounted on arms at the front of a micro glider, although the 4.6 gram module could be applied to any MAV. When the glider’s projecting nose hits a vertical surface, the arms snap forward and stick the prongs into that surface. The glider is not damaged in the impact, thanks in part to the inertia-dispersing effect of the forward thrust of the arms. The prongs easily penetrate wood, but are also highly effective even on concrete.

The glider can hang on the surface indefinitely, but when it’s time to move on, a tiny remote-controlled motor pulls the arms back and sets the MAV free.

In the development of the mechanism, Kovac was very much inspired by the perching strategies employed by insects. One of his previous insect-inspired creations was a miniature robot that hops like a grasshopper. He now hopes to combine the two, creating a flying, hopping micro-robot that can perch on walls or trees.

“I am fascinated by the creative process,” says Kovac, “and how it is possible to use the sophistication found in nature to create something completely new.”

The EPFL research was recently published in Journal of Micro-Nano Mechatronics.