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A new take on drones or a lot of hot air?


If you think the topic of airborne delivery drones is just a lot of hot air, prepare to see things in a whole new light.
While quad-copters have dominated the skies so far, at least in a theoretical sense, that might be all about to change thanks to a German company called Festo, based near Stuttgart.

With turnover in the region of €2.4bn, 17,800 staff worldwide, and 300,000 customers in more than 170 countries, Festo reinvests 7% of turnover into R&D, some of which was put toward the development of the FreeMotionHandling, an autonomous, helium-filled, spherical delivery drone.

The FreeMotionHandling is, essentially, a large helium-filled ball, attached to an externally-sited circular frame that holds eight small propellers, plus a series of sensors and circuit boards. The propellers are positioned in such a way that full 360-degree flight trajectories are possible, and the FreeMotionHandling takes its cues from signals transmitted by an indoor GPS system, made up of cameras that map the space within which the drone is operating.

Unlike conventional quad-copter type drones with clamps, claws, and compartments, the ball has a helium-filled protuberance that inhales items, then disgorges them upon arrival at their destination.

Currently, the device has an external diameter of 180cm and can cope with a payload of 400g, which is a less than a full box of breakfast cereal, and only works indoors where the corresponding GPS/cameras/sensors are in operation.

However, it does not need to be piloted, has a battery life of 40 minutes, and is inherently more safety-conscious than a standard quad-copter, thanks in the main to its lightweight structure and discreet propellers.

While, on the surface, it would appear the FreeMotionHandling has limited possibilities when it comes to the business of delivering parcels to households, the humble quad-copter also faces a number of challenges there too. However, in a smart factory or warehouse environment, the ball clearly has some interesting possibilities for acting as an employee aid.

There would obviously need to be a larger version of the FreeMotionHandling to open up wider application possibilities in future; fans of the 1960s cult spy-fi / sci-fi TV series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, would be forgiven for feeling like they’re suffering from déjà vu.

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