Some Ways Animal Flight Inspires Drone Designs

Flight of the drones

Credit: Roy Gurka

Flight of the drones

How do scientists build better flying robots? They look to the natural world for inspiration, investigating the adaptations that allow winged animals to efficiently navigate through the air, even under difficult conditions.Today’s aerial drones are more sophisticated than ever, and will likely continue to improve in performance as scientists uncover more of the secrets to insects’, bats’ and birds’ flying success.

Here are some examples of the latest discoveries in animal flight research and bio-mimicking drones, from studies published Dec. 16, 2016, in the journal Interface Focus.

Diver down

Credit: Mirko Kovac

Diver down

Many flying robots soar to great heights, but a new type of drone can also plunge into water from midair, just like certain water birds do. The Aquatic Micro Air Vehicle (AquaMAV) has morphing wings that fold up when it dives. Weighing a mere 7 ounces (200 grams), AquaMAV can fly to flooded or aquatic destinations to conduct brief data-gathering forays in water, and then blast its way back into the air using jet propulsion to return to home basePower-napping

Credit: Niels Rattenborg

Power-napping

During migration, some birds can fly for days or even months at a time without taking a break, and how they sleep during these long flights is a question that has long puzzled scientists. It was formerly thought that far-flying frigate birds rested one cerebral hemisphere at a time — literally sleeping with one eye open. But a new study conducted the first brain scans of these birds during their extended migratory journeys, finding that at times they were fully asleep while still in flight, but very briefly and only during soaring and gliding maneuvers.
Silent flight

Credit: Hermann Wagner

Silent flight

Scientists took a closer look at owl wings to understand how these avian predators can fly without making a sound. Biologists, mathematicians and engineers investigated owls’ aerodynamic performance; they found that many wing features combine to produce noiseless flight. They discovered that owls’ large wing size allows them to fly at slower speeds, reducing the amount of noise they make, while interlocking feather structures and a velvety surface texture also dampen sound, as does fringe trailing from the wing’s edge.
Damage control

Damage control

Even the most robust drones can be damaged, and scientists are investigating how the flying machines might recover; they are studying how animals compensate for injured wings and are still able to fly — even when damage to the wing membrane is considerable.Researchers tested the flight performance of fruit flies that were missing part of one wing, using high-speed videography to reveal that the flies adjusted midair by modifying their wingbeats and rolling their bodies toward the wing that had been compromised.

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Steady on

Credit: Stacey Combes

Steady on

Unpredictable wind gusts can disrupt flying for both animals and robots, but scientists found that bees persevere with foraging flights, even when conditions are extremely windy. To understand how bees navigate through turbulence, researchers placed the insects in wind tunnels and recorded their flying movements. They found that the bees used different responses to adjust midair, including changing the frequency and amplitude of wing beats, and varying the symmetry of their flapping. By mimicking these techniques, flying robots could improve their ability to steer through turbulent air.
One direction

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