New partnership with Imperial College London

Our new roommate, the drone

Dec 3, 2018 | ANDREA SIX

The new "NEST Aerial Robotics Hub" of Empa and Imperial College London is all about autonomous, soft-material drones. The aim of the new cooperation is to integrate functional materials into robot technology. As permanent residents, the flying robots will make building maintenance at NEST both easier and more efficient.
Robotics researcher Mirko Kovac will be heading the new "NEST Aerial Robotics Hub" at Empa in Dübendorf

"The city of the future will be a complex ecosystem for humans and robots," says Mirko Kovac. The robotics researcher will be heading the new "NEST Aerial Robotics Hub" at Empa in Dübendorf. As a cooperation between Empa's materials scientists and robotics experts at Imperial College London, the new center will be dedicated to the development and optimization of a new generation of autonomous soft-material drones.

The robots will use the NEST research building of Empa and Eawag as their playing field where they will roam independently as permanent residents, e.g. perform building maintenance and repair tasks. "Autonomous drones will not only increase the efficiency of maintenance work, they will also make it possible to work in places in the building that are difficult or almost impossible for people to access," explains Kovac.

Immune System of the Building

While the scientists from the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London will chip in their expertise in autonomous drone technology, Empa researchers are contributing their profound knowhow in materials to the new center. "We want to develop drones that are equipped with innovative soft materials," says Tanja Zimmermann, member of Empa's Board of Directors and head of the Functional Materials department.

Such soft materials, for example based on organic compounds, fit well with the strategy of the NEST Aerial Robotics Hub, as the characteristics of the drones are strongly influenced by biological concepts. "We have copied certain principles of the drones from the animal kingdom, for example from birds of prey and spiders," says Kovac. As a kind of immune system of the building, the drones will independently search for repair needs and carry out the necessary work.

How symbiotic this interaction between human inhabitants, drones and buildings will be and whether the new "roommates" will fit into our everyday life will be investigated by the scientists at NEST in the future.

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Further Information

Dr. Mirko Kovac
Empa/Imperial College London
NEST Aerial Robotics Hub

Phone +44 20 759 45 063

Dr. Tanja Zimmermann
Functional Materials

Phone +41 58 765 41 15

Editor/Media contact

Dr. Andrea Six
Phone +41 58 765 61 33

Mirko Kovac‘s Lab at Imperial College:

Further Reading

M Kovac; Learning from nature how to land aerial robots; Science (2016); DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6605

M Piesing; These bird-inspired drones will do our dirty work; Wired (2015);
Mirko Kovac wants to create bio-inspired flying drones to do our dirty work for us.

Drones: The buzz of something new; The Economist (2015);
Small drones need to fly free of human operators. Insects suggest to engineers how that might be done.