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Festo unveils a wacky flying balloon that 'absorbs' and carries objects

The strangely discomfiting inflatable drone can manoeuvre in any direction to pick up and drop off items.

Festo

Robotics company Festo has made a name for itself with bioinspired robots, and although there's nothing recognisable as an animal about the company's latest project, there's still something rather organic about it.

The indoor flying drone is called FreeMotionHandling. It can autonomously manoeuvre and pick up objects, consists of a round, inflated plastic body filled with helium, ringed by a carbon frame around its circumference that uses eight propellers to fly. It can move in all directions, and rotate 180 degrees.

Have you ever pushed a finger into the section of balloon where you tie it off? That is sort of how the drone's gripping mechanism works, retracting into the body of the inflated sphere. It's based on the company's previous work mimicking the gripping capabilities of a chameleon's tongue, fitting perfectly around the object and drawing it up via a rope winch.

Once the object is safely ensconced inside the orb, the drone can fly to its destination and deliver what it has picked up. It simply releases the rope, and the pressure inside the orb releases the gripper gently.

It uses an indoor GPS, previously demonstrated on Festo's robotic butterflies, to navigate, and two cameras to help it detect and pick up objects cleanly and precisely.

"An important element for future production facilities are human assistance systems that can adjust flexibly to a wide range of production scenarios. In this respect, the technology is able to react at all times to interventions by humans and other variable parameters," the brochure reads.

Like Festo's other experiments, such as its robotic ants, kangaroo, dragonfly and butterflies, we probably won't see it commercialised in its current form, but aspects of it may go on to be used in other technologies.

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