This amazing shape-shifting drone is like something straight out of sci-fi, but it's real – and autonomous…

Moju Zhao's Dragon Drone
(Image credit: The University of Tokyo)

This week the world meets in Bletchley Park, England, for the AI Safety Summit – in the very place where Alan Turing, proposer of the famous test for machine intelligence, once worked. And this new piece of autonomous technology conjures images of flying, shape-shifting robots from the future. Is it already too late for humanity?

Okay, probably not. But it is called Dragon, or rather DRAGON, which is a little ominous. It stands for (in what might be a contender for the most forced acronym of all time) Dual-rotor embedded multilink Robot with the Ability of multi-deGree-of-freedom aerial transformatiON. We spotted it first on the Interesting Engineering channel on YouTube, and you can check it out below.

The inspiration was ancient dragon mythology, which in truth I'd say is a better reason for the name than above. Zhao's drone is constructed from multiple modules that are more similar to traditional drones, connected by hinged joints. The drone is programmed to autonomously decide on its shape formation and, at the moment, can stay aloft for a little over 3 minutes and exert 3.5 newtons of force to push an object. 

Down the line, Zhao has in mind the idea of devices that can move efficiently on the ground and then fly, changing shape as needed, and add tools like grippers and legs for walking.

He is developing it at the University of Tokyo, but there is also support for this at the Japanese government level. They foresee, for example, delivery drones being able to fly and then land – much more effective than the limited schemes of today being trialed in the USA and UK, which involve dropping deliveries on giant QR codes in large enough backyards.

Predictably, social media has reacted with a mix of awe, skepticism, and grammatical corrections on the name. Georgiostones' warning "Oh wow these are gonna be used soooo against humanity" was not atypical!

It'll be a little while before we need this kind of intelligence in a camera drone, but AI and folding – a kind of shape-changing – are still an option with the HoverAir X1 that I tested recently…

If you're looking for a camera drone you can get started with right now, check out guide to the best beginner drones or the best camera drones.

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Adam Juniper
Managing Editor

With over 20 years of expertise as a tech journalist, Adam brings a wealth of knowledge across a vast number of product categories, including timelapse cameras, home security cameras, NVR cameras, photography books, webcams, 3D printers and 3D scanners, borescopes, radar detectors… and, above all, drones. 

Adam is our resident expert on all aspects of camera drones and drone photography, from buying guides on the best choices for aerial photographers of all ability levels to the latest rules and regulations on piloting drones. 

He is the author of a number of books including The Complete Guide to Drones, The Smart Smart Home Handbook, 101 Tips for DSLR Video and The Drone Pilot's Handbook