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Insects inform next generation of miniature drone design

DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Think of a miniature drone, and most of us picture a quadcopter.

Recent years have seen an explosion in the range of applications for drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Rotary blades are a good solution for large sized drones and aircraft, but once you get down to small scales, like those of an insect, they suffer from numerous problems, which may be solved using a flapping wing design. Insects have been flying for over 350 million years without a rotary blade in sight: could they hold the key to alternative UAV designs?

Learning from nature

Flapping wings have the potential to be quieter, more manoeuvrable and safer in windy conditions compared to rotary blades, but the aerodynamics are complex and poorly understood. Curious about how insects have mastered this way of moving, experts at the University of Oxford, the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Leeds studied the aerodynamics of insect flight in depth.

Insects come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and ecological niches, with wing designs to match; by comparing the flight of over 50 different species, they were able to identify the precise ways in which wing shape affects flight performance and efficiency. Their work on mosquitoes also identified previously undescribed aerodynamic mechanisms.

Research informing design

“The next generation of UAVs is likely to feature solutions to the tricky challenges of flight control and endurance that have been informed by research into insects,” said Professor Richard Bomphrey, who led the work at RVC.

The project’s findings were presented to NATO and the Ministry of Defence, and sparked a collaboration with Animal Dynamics, a spinout company that is designing a flapping miniature UAV inspired by dragonflies. Further BBSRC-funded research is now taking place into how insects use sensory feedback when flying, and how their muscles allow them to steer and turn, with further potential to influence UAV design.

Peter Burlinson, BBSRC lead for frontier bioscience, said: “'Curiosity-driven research often leads to insights that are unexpectedly relevant to other fields. There is increasing interest in biologically inspired design and it is exciting to see BBSRC-funded science finding application in such an innovative area”

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UK Research and Innovation Media Office



Tags: fundamental bioscience insects feature