Zany flying robots measure carbon dioxide in our atmosphere

A giant inflatable drone has been deployed to measure the mass of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere – but will the news be better than expected?

These tiny nano-drone robots are just metres away from a certain former president. Rides on his back keep them dry and make them more likely to last for weeks without losing power. But more importantly, these drones are entirely unmanned. The makers, Image Robotics, are planning to use them to measure the mass of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

Can you tell what it is by its movements? Photograph: Electronic Subsystem for Carbon Dioxide – Inflatable Nanobots – Inextinguishable

“This is an engineering problem, to control the movement of these things,” said Tiensong Xia, the chief scientist of Image Robotics, who heads the company’s research in miniature drones. “You can make them jump and move fast or slow. For high-res data, you can control the flight rate.”

Engineering problems not withstanding, these tiny robots are very complicated to engineer. But just hours after the first one was flown into the skies of north London, the company has confirmed that results are “better than expected”.

Nanocarbon sensors – also known as carbon nanotubes – have to be moved to very specific points. In a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology on Thursday, Xia’s team explains how they used these drones to transmit just this precise information:

“Every human being consumes 20kg of carbon dioxide. This is 60% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we exhale from our mouth, hands and nose. Data on CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is essential to assess the climate change risk, or the carbon dioxide contribution from other sources. We’ve also developed the world’s first robot.”

Estragon, the inflatable R2D2 robot created by Image Robotics, that captured air. Photograph: Image Robotics

A human sensor, drawn from astronomical data, had to be strategically placed, either by a jib over a ledge or out on a platform. The robot then flew through the air, mapping the precise location of the sensor with the help of a gyroscope. It has sensors on both sides of its body which move with it, capturing data on altitude, speed and direction.

This wasn’t the first time the team used the massive inflatable bot to measure atmosphere. It was also used for another mission in 2016. By capturing CO2 at a particular depth, the research team was able to compare the satellite information against Earth observations. “When you focus on a place, it’s harder to do what you’re trying to do,” said Xia. “We used the drone to define the vacuum, the aerosol and also to determine the orientation of the sensor.”

The team is excited about further research with the tiny plastic-and-tin bots. While it’s an engineering challenge to get the data they want, it’s also interesting to get this detailed analysis of carbon dioxide in a world-class instrument, he said. “It’s important from a scientific point of view, but it’s a niche market and it’s also difficult to use.”

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