Swiss student team designs Voliro omnidirectional rotorcopter

By Patrick C. Miller | July 05, 2017

A team of students in Switzerland last month completed work on a prototype omnidirectional hexacopter capable of flying maneuvers previously considered impossible with a rotor-powered unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

Known at the Voliro project, 11 students in the final year of their bachelor’s degrees in nine months designed a complete system from scratch that featured six tiltable rotors. This design enables the drone to hover in any position by completely decoupling its position and orientation.

“It is possible to fly in any orientation—even vertical and upside down—effortlessly,” said Alexis Müller, the team member responsible for systems control.

The team included one electrical engineering and eight mechanical engineering students with the Autonomous Systems Lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and two industrial design students from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHDK).

According to Müller, there were two primary design challenges. The first was finding the correct algorithm and allocation to convert the desired orientation and position into the proper angles of the tilting motors and the right thrust of the propellers. The second was communications between all of the different devices, electronics and communication protocols.

Although Müller said the Viliro drone could be used for a wide variety of applications, he believed it would be uniquely suited for the bridge inspection mission, a job that usually requires trucks and the blocking of bridges for hours at a time.

“With our system, this would be much more efficient, since it would be able to adapt to the slope of the surface and inspect the wall without having to block the bridge at all or needing any truck,” he explained.

Traditional rotocopters have the limitation of being able to fly horizontally only.

“This gives us the advantage of a much more stable flight and reduces the possibility of crashing against the wall due to wind turbulence,” Müller said.

Future feature ideas for the Voliro drone include the ability to incorporate a large sphere to roll on the ground, the ability to fly parallel to a wall, 12-degrees of freedom aerobatic maneuvers, an intuitive hand control and vision-based sensors such as a stereo camera.

Müller said the team has been contacted by possible investors and other interested parties about using the Voliro drone for applications ranging from bridge inspections to painting walls.