The Future of Drone Design

New system of computational multicopter design allows for custom, purpose-built drones.

Researchers at MIT have developed a new system that allows users to design their own custom drones, based on their desired specifications. The system opens up the complex process of multicopter design to amateurs and hobbyists, and may result in new and unique drone functionality.

Design Your Own Drone

Users begin by specifying the needs of their drone, inputting specs such as payload, flight time, battery usage, and cost. They also choose from a database of parts they’ll need for their design. The system takes care of the hard work, computing sizes such as rod lengths and motor angles, and analyzing metrics such as torque and thrust to determine the feasibility of the design.

The researchers used an algorithm called the alternating direction method of multipliers (ADMM) to design the system. This method breaks down complex optimization problems, such as drone design, into smaller, more manageable parts. Specifically, the researchers decoupled two strongly correlated variables of drone design: geometry, which refers to the shape and structure of a drone; and control, or how the drone is programmed to move.

“Once you decouple these variables, you turn a very complicated optimization problem into two easy sub-problems that we already have techniques for solving,” said researcher Tao Du.

Having a system that takes care of these considerations for the designer, and can guarantee functionality of the final drone, makes non-standard drone designs an accessible possibility. Commercial drones typically employ standard configurations such as an even number of rotors, and upward facing propellers. In contrast, the researchers demonstrated the effectiveness of their system by creating irregular drones such as a five-rotor pentacopter, and a drone with asymmetric propeller sizes and rotor heights (the whimsically named bunnycopter, because of it’s resemblance to a rabbit).

The irregular-shaped bunnycopter, designed with the new system. (Image courtesy of Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL.)

The irregular-shaped bunnycopter, designed with the new system. (Image courtesy of Jason Dorfman/MIT CSAIL.)

“This system opens up new possibilities for how drones look and function,” said researcher Wojciech Matusik. “It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach for people who want to make and use drones for particular purposes.”

In the future, such a system may even offer proactive design suggestions, such as the best placement of a rotor based on a desired payload. But this research also suggests a possible shift in the way all systems – not just drones – may someday be designed.

“This is the first system in which users can interactively design a drone that incorporates both geometry and control,” said research scientist Nobuyuki Umetani, who was not involved in the research. “This is very exciting work that has the potential to change the way people design.”

You can read the research paper outlining the system here. For more drone news, read Using Drones to Fight Wildfires.

Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.