A Bird? A Plane? Not Superman, but a Flapping Wing Drone

(CN) — Engineers from an international research team have developed a new high-tech drone capable of mimicking the calculated yet erratic flying patterns of the swift, one of the most high-speed and acrobatic birds in nature. 

The team is composed of scientists from Singapore, Australia, China and Taiwan who specialize in “biologically inspired flight.” This most recent aircraft is capable of flapping its wings, which gives it the added control to perform complicated maneuvers similar to its animal counterpart. 

More affectionately known as the chimney swift or the “flying cigar” for its recognizable silhouette, this nimble bird has a distinctive flight style. It spends most of its life airborne, able to catch the smallest insects in midflight and even bathe while airborne. It clings to the sides of rooftops or hollow openings to rest because it’s unable to perch.

This project, published Tuesday in the journal Science Robotics, was led by research scientist Yao-Wei Chin from the National University of Singapore, a doctoral graduate in biomimetic flapping-wing micro air vehicle technology.

“Common swifts can cruise at a maximum speed of 31 meters [102 feet] a second, equivalent to 112 kilometers per hour or 90 miles per hour. Their wing agility allows them to turn their body in midair while still flapping at different speeds and angles,” said Dr. Chin. “At most, I would say we are replicating 10% of biological flight.”

The drone is quieter, safer and lighter than other quadcopter drones, weighing no more than two tablespoons of flour, according to the authors. Its complex flight abilities make the new device a great deal more advanced than previous designs, able to navigate through the most cluttered airspaces.

“The team has designed a flapping wing drone similar in size to a swift, or large moth, that can perform some aggressive bird flight maneuvers,” Chin said. “Unlike common quadcopters that are quite intrusive and not very agile, biologically inspired drones could be used very successfully in a range of environments.”

The scientists emphasize the new technologies possible applications in the modern world, such as the first ever commercialized ornithopter used for surveillance, but they also introduced a new breakthrough function of this type of drone: pollination. Existing quadcopters that utilize blades for flight run the risk of shredding any vegetation it comes near, but the team’s flapping wing drone could be capable of pollinating indoor vertical crops.

A similar development was accomplished by chemists from the Japan Advanced Institute of Science, who designed a lightweight drone containing pollen-laden bubbles to pollinate crops in the wake of the declining bee population, finding promising success.

The device also has environmental protection benefits, the team adds, since it is resilient against strong winds. The drone could be helpful in protecting bird populations near airports and ward off nearby flocks who are in danger of being wounded or killed by jet engines. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, airplanes strike more than 40 birds a day.

“Copying the design of birds, like swifts, is just one strategy to improve the flight performance of flapping wing drones,” said Javaan Chahl, an aerospace engineer from the University of South Australia (UniSA). “There are existing ornithopters that can fly forward and backward as well as circling and gliding, but until now, they haven’t been able to hover or climb. We have overcome these issues with our prototype, achieving the same thrust generated by a propeller.”

He added: “The triple roles of flapping wings for propulsion, lift and drag enable us to replicate the flight patterns of aggressive birds by simple tail control. Essentially, the ornithopter drone is a combination of a paraglider, airplane and helicopter.”

Furthermore, a new design breakthrough for this ornithopter means it can carry a camera or other recording electronics. The researchers note this improvement can be applied to monitoring traffic and crowds and exploring forests and other ecosystems, as has been done with drones that discovered new underwater ecosystems by traveling past human limitations.

“The lightweight and the slow beating wings of the ornithopter poses less danger to the public than quadcopter drones in the event of a crash and given sufficient thrust and power banks it could be modified to carry different payloads depending on what is required,” said Chin.

The authors note more research is needed to understand exactly how birds might react to a flying drone similar to them in stature. In the past, small local birds tended to keep their distance while larger birds traveling in groups have a record of attacking these devices.

“While the bio-inspired breakthrough is impressive, we are a long way from replicating biological flight,” said Chin. “Although ornithopters are the closest to biological flight with their flapping wing propulsion, birds and insects have multiple sets of muscles which enable them to fly incredibly fast, fold their wings, twist, open feather slots and save energy.”

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