2019 Cornell Cup Winners Include Autonomous Boat, Flapping UAV, and Leaping Rover

For college-aged engineers and designers, finding a problem they’re truly passionate about early on could very well set the trajectory for an entire career. This is precisely the goal of the Cornell Cup, a competition that tasks applicants with solving a real-world problem in a unique and interesting way. From what we saw this is definitely working, as teams showed up with ornithopter-based quadcopters, robotic dinghies, forest fire sniffers, and high-jumping rovers.

With such an open ended approach, individual entries have a tendency to vary wildly, running the gamut from autonomous vehicles to assistive technology. No team feels pressured to pursue a project they aren’t truly invested in, and everyone’s the better for it.

Given such lofty goals, Hackaday was proud to sponsor the 2019 Cornell Cup. Especially as it so closely aligns with the product design focus of this year’s Hackaday Prize. Designing something which solves a real-world problem is definitely part of the formula when the goal is to reach large scale production. And after seeing the entries first-hand during the Finals at Kennedy Space Center, we think every one of them would be a fantastic entry into the Hackaday Prize.

I don’t envy the judges who ultimately had to narrow it down to just a few teams to take home their share of the nearly $20,000 awarded. Join me after the break for a closer look at the projects that ended up coming out on top.

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Robotic Fruit Fly Won’t Eat Your Fruit

The DelFly project has been busy since the last time we checked in on them. The Dutch team started 13 years ago and produced the smallest camera-carrying drone, and an autonomous tiny ornithopter. However, that ornithopter — now five years old — had to use some traditional control surfaces and a tail like an airplane which was decidedly not fruit fly-like. Now they’ve solved those problems and have announced the DelFly Nimble, a 13 inch and 1-ounce ornithopter. You can see the Nimble in the video below.

The close emulation of a real fly means the thing looks distinctly insect-like in flight. The dual wings use Mylar and form an X configuration. They flap about 17 times per second. A fully charged battery  — remember, the whole thing weighs an ounce — lasts five minutes. With an efficient speed of 3 meters per second, the team claims a flight range of over 1 kilometer with a peak speed that can reach  7 meters per second. It can even take a payload, as long as that payload weighs 4 grams or less.

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Laser-Powered Flying Machine Weighs Milligrams

We’ve become used to seeing some beautiful hand-made creations at the smaller end of the flying machine scale, tiny aircraft both fixed and rotary wing. An aircraft that weighs a few grams is entirely possible to build, such have been the incredible advances in component availability.

But how much smaller can a working aircraft be made? Given a suitable team and budget, how about into the milligrams? [Dr. Sawyer Fuller] and his team at the University of Washington have made an ornithopter which may be the lightest aircraft yet made, using a piezoelectric drive to flap flexible wings. That in itself isn’t entirely new, but whereas previous efforts had relied on a tether wire supplying electricity, the latest creation flies autonomously with its power supplied by laser to an on-board miniature solar cell that protrudes above the craft on its wires.

Frustratingly Dr. Fuller’s page on the machine is lighter on detail than we’d like, probably because they are saving the juicy stuff for a big reveal at a conference presentation. It is however an extremely interesting development from a technical perspective, as well as opening up an entirely new front in the applications for flying machines. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

You can see the craft in the video below the break, and if you’re interested lies with more conventional tiny machines take a look at the creator of a 2.9g Mustang model.

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Scratch-Built Ornithopter: Here’s How I Flapped My Way to Flight

One of humankind’s dreams has always been to fly like a bird. For a hacker, an achievable step along the path to that dream is to make an ornithopter — a machine which flies by flapping its wings. An RC controlled one would be wonderful, controlled flight is what everyone wants. Building a flying machine from scratch is a big enough challenge, and a better jumping-off point is to make a rubber band driven one first.

I experimented with designs which are available on the internet, to learn as much as possible, but I started from scratch in terms of material selection and dimensions. You learn a lot about flight through trial and error, and I’m happy to report that in the end I achieved a great little flyer built with a hobby knife and my own two hands. Since then I’ve been looking back on what made that project work, and it’s turned into a great article for Hackaday. Let’s dig in!

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Mechanisms: The Lever, It’s Everywhere

Levers are literally all around us. You body uses them to move, pick up a pen to sign your name and you’ll use mechanical advantage to make that ballpoint roll, and that can of soda doesn’t open without a cleverly designed lever.

I got onto this topic quite by accident. I was making an ornithopter and it was having trouble lifting its wings. For the uninitiated, ornithopters are machines which fly by flapping their wings. The problem was that the lever arm was too short. To be honest, as I worked I wasn’t even thinking in terms of levers, and only realized that there was one after I’d fine-tuned its length by trial and error. After that, the presence of a lever was embarrassingly obvious.

I can probably be excused for not seeing a lever right away because it wasn’t the type we most often experience. There are different classes of levers and it’s safe to say that most people aren’t even aware of this. Let’s take a closer look at these super useful, and sometimes hidden mechanisms known as levers.

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Mechanical Bird Actually Flies by Flapping its Wings

Turns out you don’t have to be a multi-million dollar corporation like Festo to create a remote controlled, flapping bird robot. [Kazuhiko Kakuta] is a medical Doctor of Allergy, and in his free time he likes to build flying mechanical birds with his son.

It has just over a meter wingspan, weighs 193 grams, and it flies by flapping its wings. The majority of its components are 3D printed. If that’s not impressive enough for you as is, consider this. It it has no sensors, no gyroscopes or anything — it’s all manually controlled by [Kazuhiko].

And this isn’t even the only ornithopter he’s done. He’s also created something out of an anime film, Castle in the Sky. He even sells the designs for one of them, to be printed via Shapeways.

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The World’s First Autonomous Flapping MAV

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[Ferdinand] sent in a tip about the very cool DelFly Explorer, built by researchers at Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, which is claimed to be the world’s first autonomous, flapping micro air vehicle. While it doesn’t fly like a typical ornithopter, the specs will convince you not to care. It has an 28 cm wingspan and weighs 20 grams, which includes motors, a battery, two cameras, and an autopilot. The autopilot uses accelerometers and a gyroscope, plus a barometer for altitude measurement. You can see the on-board video at the 35-second mark on the video (after the break). They are incredibly noisy images, but apparently the researchers have come up with some algorithms that can make sense of it.

Put it all together, and you have a machine that can take off, maintain altitude, avoid obstacles, and fly for nine minutes. We’ve seen a cool ornithopter design before, and even a thrust vectoring plane, but this surpasses both projects. It’s pretty incredible what they have been able to fit into such a small design.

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