RMIT creates bird-like drone with flappable wings

RMIT in collaboration with ISAE-Supaéro has created a bio-inspired drone that flaps its wings and rides wind currents like birds.

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Image: RMIT

Drone flight technologies have proliferated into various industry sectors, being used for telecommunications, security, and farming purposes among many others.

With usage of drone technologies becoming widespread, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) published a new study in collaboration with ISAE-Supaéro, unveiling experimental drones that lead researcher Dr Abdulghani Mohamed claims "represent a big leap in energy harvesting for drones".

Created by RMIT's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) research team, the study's experimental drone can flap its wings, and sense gusts and thermals to gain speed or altitude, just like birds.

SEE: Drone policy (Tech Pro Research)

Speaking with TechRepublic, Dr Mohamed said drone technology is now integral to maximising our ability to gather information, monitor situations, and surveillance.

The inspiration behind RMIT undertaking this study on bio-inspired drones is due to the limitations of current drone technologies, with Mohamed saying that "with energy storage on small UAVs ... most drones of very small sizes can only fly in the proximity of 1 to 2 hours, but you really want to extend that to 24 hours and beyond.

"In regards to battery technology, while it is improving, it can only give you so much endurance and range, and through energy harvesting, you can definitely extend the operational performance beyond energy storage."

SEE: Vodafone trials long distance flight tech on 4G networks

Bio-inspired research has become a key development in the area of drone flight technologies, according to a recent review by Progress in Aerospace Sciences — the RMIT study being a reflection of this.

The University of Zurich and NCCR Robotics in 2017 created a bio-inspired camera that mimics eye mechanics, and can easily cope with high-speed motion and see in near-dark conditions.

From a technical standpoint, RMIT's experimental drones harvest energy by using the sensors on its custom controller to calculate the size of gusts that pass the drone, and whether it wants to limit the effects of the gust or extract energy from it.

"For example if the drone gets hit with a large gust where the drone starts to move upwards or downwards in a heaving motion, the drone will then follow the direction of the gust and gain speed, and once it gains speed, the controller will then decide whether it wants to use that kinetic energy to keep flying at that speed, or whether to exchange it with potential energy to gain height," Dr Mohamed explained.

"When do you that, the aircraft is able to be more stable, and extracting energy from the gust makes the drone have more endurance."

SEE: Cape enhances commercial drone experience and usage

The biggest difficulties surrounding the development of bio-inspired drones, however, will be figuring out how to mimic the movements of birds in a manner that is both scalable and applicable to urban environments.

"Adaption is the hardest physical part as you are trying to take a complicated bio-system that is very well integrated, and adapting it to what is relatively a very simple mechanical system," Mohamed said.

ISAE-Supaéro PhD research student Nikola Gavrilovic, who led the system integration and testing of the drone, shared similar sentiments.

"Birds have had millions of years to evolve and perfect these techniques. Trying to mimic them in technology is very difficult but is proving to be a fruitful area of drone research with impressive results."

SEE: Quick glossary—drones (Tech Pro Research)

In addition to research performed on avian-based drones, the RMIT UAS research team have also been studying the behaviour of insects to try and understand how they fly, and translate that knowledge to drone technology.

RMIT have also embraced the transition towards a digital environment, when it announced in September that it will be providing a stronger and more comprehensive internet network for on-campus students and staff.

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