Students create award-winning rescue-drone concept inspired by Aladdin’s magic carpet.

By Matt Irvin

High-rise buildings can be interesting and exciting places to live and work. As communities, they facilitate social interactions and activities. As workplaces, they allow large groups of people to engage in the close collaboration and teamwork often necessary to solve difficult problems. Aesthetically speaking, they offer their inhabitants breathtaking views from vantage points once available only to birds. And, with modern mixed-use building developments, they provide a level of convenience that saves time and effort. Given the growing densification of cities, the construction of skyscrapers is likely to continue apace for the foreseeable future.

There is a downside to building tall, however: limits on the ability to evacuate people in times of emergency. We know that engineers are designing lifts that can be used to save people from fires or earthquake conditions, which is a major advance in technology. But, for some, this may not be an option. Suppose, for example, someone on the 35th floor finds the normal escape route blocked by fire? How do we bring this person to safety?

A group of university students from China may have the solution: The Net Guard rescue drone, winner of the 2018 Golden Pin Concept Design Award. Net Guard is an unmanned vehicle that uses four propellers mounted in housings that give it vertical takeoff and landing capabilities just like most commercially available, remote-controlled drones. When the distress signal is received, the Net Guard drone is dispatched, using a GPS system to pinpoint the location. Because it’s an aircraft, it can travel above congested roadways and arrive at the scene much quicker than surface-level responders.

When the drone arrives at the scene, the four propeller housings separate. As they pull apart, a strong, four-layer safety net unreels between them and is pulled taut. Sensors track the movements of the person in distress, allowing Net Guard to maintain its position so the person can jump from a window onto the net, after which he or she would be carried to safety.

The six inventors — Diao Hao-Ming, Liu Xiang, Li Haohua, Zhu Nantong, Li Guo-Yu and Hu Zhenyuan — are students from the Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University schools of Electronic Engineering and Art. In a statement quoted by the Daily Mail, they said, “We are constantly researching drone concepts from around the globe. We are most interested in applications that benefit society at large.”

The young inventors discussed their project in a video posted on the South China Morning Post,.

"The 'flying net' idea comes from Aladdin's magic carpet, said Li Haohua. "A magic carpet can carry people, and it is fast. Speed is essential when a fire breaks out." He said they knew drones could carry people, so they focused on designing material for the net. Added colleague Hu Zhenyuan, "It's relatively soft, but it's strong, so it won't cause any harm to a person falling from a height."

Though confident in their design, the young inventors knew they were up against strong competition and were not expecting to win the Golden Pin Concept Design award. "We thought we would go to the award ceremony just for the experience," said Zhu Nantong.

They told the Daily Mail they plan to create a working prototype for the Net Guard rescue drone. While the concept did capture the imagination of the Golden Pin awards jury, the proposal was met with mixed reactions when presented on designboom. Among the more positive comments:

  • “Great concept,” said commenter Archie Ferguson, who continued, “this is a tool that could save lives without endangering others.”
  • “This sounds like a very promising idea,” said Rob. “I hope the creators get all the funding they need to make it functional and reliable.”

Others were more skeptical:

  • “There is no way to spread out a semi-rigid net like that,” commented Francisco Vianna. “As soon as a human lands in the middle, the fans will thrust outwards … and the net will collapse.”
  • “Cannot believe this would really work,” said J.S. Lavenstein. “Would you jump off the 15th floor onto this?”

About the Awards

More than 4,600 entries were submitted for the 2018 Golden Pin awards, which are given in three categories: the Golden Pin Design Award, Golden Pin Concept Design Award and Young Pin Design Award. The award was established in Taiwan in 1981 and is considered among the most influential such award globally. It is presented by the Taiwan Design Center, along with co-advisors the Ministry of Economic Affairs Organizers and the Industry Development Bureau, MOEA Executive Organizer.