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Project Skye: A Quadcopter-Blimp Hybrid to Livestream Events

By Wesley Fenlon

Part quadrocopter, part blimp, Project Skye is a quirky but cool flying thingamajig made by a group of students from Zurich University.

Most quadrocopters come in a familiar shape. Four spindly arms stretch out horizontally from a central body, propellers attached to their ends. Often a circular frame wraps around the propellers to protect them from impact. Project Skye, which we recently came across at a Bay Area Science Festival event in San Francisco, is essentially a quadrocopter, but you wouldn't know by looking at it. It looks less like a helicopter and more like a giant floating soccer ball.

The original design for Skye, which first took flight in early 2012, combined a quartet of propellers like you'd find on a quadrocopter with the body of a blimp, though it's a sphere instead of a more common oval shape. Helium kept it afloat, but the propellers provided lift and navigation control.

Skye is the creation of a group of students at ETH Zurich University, with the backing of Disney Research Zurich. And as strange as the image of a floating soccer ball might seem, Project Skye is the kind of technology that puts a smile on your face as soon as you see it. It's just fun, harmless, and a little exciting. How often do you get to see a blimp--even a small one--up close?

The key component of Project Skye is a camera used to live stream video. Most quadrocopters have cameras on board, too, but they don't offer the advantages of Skye's soft body. "During development, safety was the most important aspect," explains Daniel Meier one of Project Skye's student team, over email. "This has resulted in a flying robot which is safe enough to be touched by children while flying over their heads."

Most quadrocopters don't have the perk of Skye's longevity, either. "On a windless day or in an indoor environment, Skye can operate for hours," Meier writes. "Outdoors with little wind we can still operate significantly longer than multi-rotor systems. By increasing the overall size, we can carry more batteries and therefore enhance flight time as well."

The floating Skye soccer ball at the Bay Area Science Festival Nerd Nite event was actually the second iteration of the project. The team made its design more modular, to support different types of components like cameras, and they also changed its movement system. The familiar quadrocopter-style propellers were replaced with air impellers, which are smaller and more powerful. The hull also shrank slightly and gained the ability to light up.

The Skye team demonstrated an illuminated sphere at SIGGRAPH 2013, as a floating, glowing moon made its way over the heads of the audience. Watch the video below.

The Skye's SIGGRAPH showing offers a glimpse of how a floating, harmless blimp could be a big hit at events. Imagine a collection of them orbiting one another in the air above an audience, representing the planets of our solar system. Or a fleet of them hovering over an outdoor event, like the summer Olympics, providing top-down camera shots of contestants and crowds.

Skye can be controlled with touchscreen commands, setting waypoints for the blimp to follow. But the team's primary control interface is a 3D mouse, used to control its movements in three directional and three rotational degrees of freedom. "The control and allocation algorithms are all developed by us, since the concept of omnidirectionality is new," writes Meier.

The Project Skye team is traveling around to various events to show off their creation, and are still evaluating ways to turn their blimpcopter into a commercial product.