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Disney Research creates drone car that can climb walls

The VertiGo drone car clings to a wall during a demonstration video. Photo: Disney Research/ETHIf you’ve ever piloted a remote-controlled car, you’re familiar with the question we all ask ourselves after a couple of minutes of zooming around over horizontal surfaces: “Why can’t this thing climb straight up a vertical wall and scoot around like a fly or a gecko or some sort of tree frog?”

Well be disappointed by devices that obey the laws of physics no longer, because Disney Research Zurich and Swiss university ETH have concocted VertiGo, a prototype wall-gripping robot that appears to do just that.

In the age of consumer quadcopters, it’s perhaps not all that surprising to see a small device that can scale a wall, and in fact VertiGo achieves its trick in much the same way as your standard flying drone (no, unfortunately it is not covered in the tiny sticky bristles of a lizard foot).

In addition to the four wheels (the front pair of which enables the device to steer), VertiGo uses the thrust from a pair of tiltable propellers not to lift itself into the air but to press itself against a surface and evade the downward pull of gravity.

Vertigo’s propellers flip and angle themselves to allow a transition from ground to wall, and also let the machine sit still on a vertical plane or zip across bumpy surfaces and masonry.

An on-board computer crunches data from an inertial measurement unit and infra-red sensors to determine the VertiGo’s position in space and calculate the necessary thrust amount and direction.

This supposedly allows the device to be operated by very simple controls akin to a regular remote-controlled car (the researchers point out the device can even, “theoretically”, drive on the ceiling, but they apparently haven’t tried that out yet).

Of course all the propelling, oscillation and processing uses energy, and for that reason the VertiGo likely shares the same key weakness of consumer drones: battery longevity. More battery means more weight, which in turn requires more thrust and so greater power usage.

While the researchers have provided details on how they achieved the lightest design possible — a carbon fibre base plate, carbon rods and 3D printing are used to form the body and wheels — no details are given on the battery life.

No indication was given as to how long it might be before a device like VertiGo could be gracing the outside walls of our apartment blocks or leaving grubby wheel marks across the walls of our living rooms.

More useful applications for the technology might include military and emergency use, or for scouting out areas too dangerous for people to climb.

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