The Environmental Robotics Laboratory (https://erl.ethz.ch) was recently established at the Department of Environmental Systems Science. The group is seeking highly motivated PhD students to study and develop innovative soft aerial robots for the exploration of confined spaces like crevices or narrow gaps in natural and artificial environments.

Project background

The quest for accessing confined spaces more efficiently, safely and at a lower cost is exponentially increasing. The exploration of crevices, narrow gaps, interstices in natural or man-made environments is indeed an underpinning challenge in many fields. In search and rescue missions for instance, crevices or gaps in walls are often the only viable path to enter collapsed buildings and locate trapped people. The sharp increase in infrastructure deterioration demands new methods to inspect even the smallest interstice. Moreover, collecting data inside the dense vegetation of canopies is becoming a priority as we seek to better understand and predict the impacts of climate change. Because drones, especially multi-rotors, have become the reference tool to explore remote, inaccessible and often dangerous places, we see a large potential in understanding how drones can also efficiently reach and explore very confined spaces.  Unfortunately, current drones lack of “mechanical intelligence” and the inherent versatility and robustness to interact and move in very complex environments. Drones are primarily designed to fly in open areas and feature rigid bodies optimized for flight stability and maneuverability. Overall, there is still a substantial gap in the knowledge and technology to make drones able to squeeze and crawl inside narrow spaces, as animals do to cross crevices and other confined environments.

Job description

The goal of the project is to systematically explore drones that need a significant physical interaction with the environment to accomplish their mission. We will address the related scientific and technological challenges by exploring the exemplary case study of a hovering drone that needs to squeeze and crawl to traverse a narrow crevice. We want to study these “mechanically intelligent” drones by using a combination of methods, design and manufacturing strategies that stem from the field of soft robotics. The expected outcome of the project is a drone with a body that softens to enter confined spaces and uses multimodal mobility to crawl inside them. The main research tasks are the following:

  • Conceive new strategies to model and control hovering drones with deformable bodies.
  • Experiment with novel functional materials, soft architectures and manufacturing approaches to implement deformable frames for hovering drones (e.g. smart materials, origami manufacturing methods).
  • Manufacture the proposed solutions and validate them on the field.

The PhD project will be hosted at ETH and WSL, where the experiments inspiring these questions are being performed. This offers a unique opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary team of roboticists, ecologists and biologists with tight feedback between experiment and theory, and the possibility to access state-of-the-art field sites.

Related research articles:

  1. S. Mintchev, J. Shintake, and D. Floreano, “Bioinspired dual-stiffness origami,” Sci. Robot., vol. 3, no. 20, Jul. 2018.
  2. D. Falanga, K. Kleber, S. Mintchev, D. Floreano, and D. Scaramuzza, “The Foldable Drone: A Morphing Quadrotor That Can Squeeze and Fly,” IEEE Robot. Autom. Lett., vol. 4, no. 2, 2019.
  3. A. Tonazzini, S. Mintchev, B. Schubert, B. Mazzolai, J. Shintake, and D. Floreano, “Variable Stiffness Fiber with Self-Healing Capability,” Adv. Mater., vol. 28, no. 46, pp. 10142–10148, 2016.

Your profile

You should hold an MSc degree with a background in robotics, mechanical engineering, electronics, aerospace engineering or computer science. A proven experience in the design and prototyping of robotics systems is required. Experience in the fields of aerial robotics and soft robotics is beneficial. Fluent communication skills (written and presentation) in English are essential. Preferred start date is April 2021 or earlier.

ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities specialising in science and technology. We are renowned for our excellent education, cutting-edge fundamental research and direct transfer of new knowledge into society. Over 30,000 people from more than 120 countries find our university to be a place that promotes independent thinking and an environment that inspires excellence. Located in the heart of Europe, yet forging connections all over the world, we work together to develop solutions for the global challenges of today and tomorrow.Working, teaching and research at ETH ZurichGet connected


We look forward to receiving online applications including:

  • CV,
  • copies of all Bachelor and Master certificates,
  • transcripts,
  • copy of the Master Thesis,
  • contact details for two references,
  • 1-page letter of motivation addressed to Prof. Dr. Stefano Mintchev.

Please note that we exclusively accept applications submitted through our online application portal. Applications via email or postal services will not be considered.

For more information, specific questions regarding the position can be directed to Professor Stefano Mintchev at smintchev@ethz.ch (no applications). Review of applications will be on an ongoing basis beginning January 1st, 2020 and continue until the position is filled.

Apply online now

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