When public safety organizations are putting drones to work, taking off can be the most time-consuming and risky part of an operation. People, structures and other environmental factors tend to slow down flights and the speed at which they get underway – which isn’t ideal when every second counts.
One way to get around this problem is to standardize the launch process. Researchers from Caltech University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have done exactly that, with a dynamic solution that fires the drone from a cannon.
SQUID: Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone
It’s called SQUID, which stands for Streamlined Quick Unfolding Investigation Drone. It also looks a little squid-like.
SQUID relies on a ballistic launch system, which determines the path for the drone, prevents collisions with its environment, increases its range of operation and allows deployment from an unsteady platform – like a moving vehicle.
Better still, SQUID can transition from a ballistic launch into full flight in midair. SQUID’s four rotors begin turning 200 milliseconds after launch and the drone is hovering in under a second.
That happens because the arms unfold as the drone is fired from the 3-inch barrel. Tests so far have shown the system can be used from a moving vehicle, with successful launches at speeds of up to 50mph.
A drone launch system for another world
Public safety is the obvious market for SQUID and ballistic launch technology in general. But the researchers have also pointed to space exploration as a potential use case.
“While the SQUID prototype, as outlined in this paper, has been designed for operation on Earth, the same concept is potentially adaptable to other planetary bodies, in particular Mars and Titan,” reads the published paper – Design of a Ballistically-Launched Foldable Multirotor.
The researchers cite the Mars helicopter, which will deploy from the Mars 2020 rover mission set to launch next summer.
The helicopter will provide a proof-of-concept for powered rotorcraft flight on the planet and extend the range at which the rover can collect data. But as the researchers explain, “the current deployment method for the Mars Helicopter from the underbelly of the rover reduces ground clearance, resulting in stricter terrain constraints.
“Additionally, the rover must move a significant distance away from the helicopter drop site before the helicopter can safely take off. The addition of a ballistic, deterministic launch system for future rovers or entry vehicles would isolate small rotorcraft from the primary mission asset, as well as enable deployment at longer distances or over steep terrain features.”
Whether it’s for public safety missions or solar system exploration, ballistic launch systems like SQUID represent a promising avenue for drone developers. The technology removes some of the uncertainty from launch procedures and speeds up the process of putting drones to work.