Bat Drone Mimics Flexible Wings

Inspired by bats, the wings of a new drone change shape in response to conditions in the environment.

When chasing insects for their dinner, bats can perform aerial acrobatics that would shame even the steeliest test pilots. Inspired by the wings that allow bats to pull off such impressive maneuvers, a team of engineers designed new kinds of wing surfaces for drones.

At the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, a group led by engineering professor Bharathram Ganapathisubramani designed a flexible, membrane wing for small drones, otherwise known as micro air vehicles (MAVs).

MAVs are used for a variety of purposes, including reconnaissance and scientific work. The new membrane wings change shape in response to local conditions in the environment, allowing for more efficient flight. "If you compare a flexible wing to rigid wing, you get far better efficiency," Ganapathisubramani told Live Science.

The team tested its MAV - one that measured about 18 inches (46 centimeters) across - over water near a local beach. The MAV was designed to skim above the surface and land safely, like a seaplane. The membrane is stretched between struts where a stiff wing would ordinarily be, the engineers said. "It just uses a passive membrane that changes shape on its own based on the wind," Ganapathisubramani said.

The early tests were a good start, but Ganapathisubramani wants to take it a step further, he said. Bat wings are membranes stretched between finger bones. The bats' membranes are covered in a network of blood vessels and have muscle, so they can change stiffness and shape depending on what the bat wants to do.

The reason bats can change direction so fast and do loops and dives is because they can change their wing shapes, and thus their aerodynamic capabilities, in real time, Ganapathisubramani said.

To get this shape-changing effect, the researchers used a polymer that expands and contracts when a voltage is applied to it. Such polymers have been studied for several years, and can function as a kind of artificial muscle.

Because the amount of contraction depends on the voltage only, the currents can be small, the researchers said. Ganapathisubramani's team has tested designs in a wind tunnel and will be experimenting with the drones over the next few years.

"The idea is, in the future, [we could] put it on the drone and run a voltage through the wing," Ganapathisubramani said. The voltage makes the molecules of the polymer squeeze together, and the material has to expand in another direction, similar to what happens when you squeeze a sponge, he added.

While membranous wings wouldn't be practical on a commercial aircraft, it might be possible to make some of a plane's control surfaces flexible, the researchers said. For example, the ailerons (the hinged sections that form part of the trailing edge of a wing) and the rudder could be made with this kind of polymer on the edges.

This could make the aircraft's controls more precise, the scientists said. And enabling a plane to change its wing configuration depending on the weather could translate into fuel savings, along with smoother rides, the researchers added.

For now, though, Ganapathisubramani said, he and his colleagues want to use this technology on drones, and they have done computer modeling to decide exactly how to build the wing surfaces.

Get more from Live Science

Photos from Above: 8 Cool Camera-Carrying Drones 9 Totally Cool Uses for Drones Flying Mammals: Gallery of Spooky Bats Original article on Live Science. Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Robots and drones get a bad rap sometimes, but there's an entire industry out there designing bots and UAVs specifically designed to save human lives. Here we take a look at some of these machines, including Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot -- pictured above. Like a hydraulic St. Bernard, the robot can deliver emergency supplies to remote or hazardous areas over rough terrain.


Crash-Proof Drone Tossed Into Icy Crevasse

Toshiba's custom-designed two-arm underwater robot was constructed for the express purpose of removing debris and fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroyed by an earthquake in March of 2011.


Net-Wielding Police Drones Nab Criminal Drones

Drone Systems' Scout UAS is designed to be used by the first arriving units in emergency situations. It can be deployed in under two minutes to provide aerial view of disasters or wildfires.


Swarming Ants Offer Robot Rescue Tips

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a hybrid aerial drone that can enter flaming skyscrapers and endure flames of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. The bot can shift from flight mode to spider mode on its own, crawling up walls to navigate narrow spaces.


Lifeguard Drone Seven Times Faster Than Humans

S.W.A.R.M. (

Search With Aerial RC Multirotor

) is a volunteer network of drone owners that work with authorities in search-and-rescue scenarios. Coordinated drone searches are less expensive than piloted aircraft operations, and can cover larger areas. The group has more than 1,000 members in 42 countries.


Drone Swarm! 50 UAVs Controlled By One Pilot

This concept UAV from industrial designers Frog Design can be deployed in skiing areas for both avalanche prevention and rescue. The drone could carry explosives to trigger controlled avalanches, or use its thermal cameras to locate people trapped under snow.


Drone Finds Missing Elderly Man In 20 Minutes

Another concept UAV from Frog Design, the Firestorm uses an array of advanced sensors to move through burning buildings. Powerful LED lights and a short-wave bullhorn can be used to guide survivors to safety.


Hero Drone Flies, Floats, Dives Underwater

Developed by a German nonprofit, the Defikopter is designed to deliver defibrillator units to victims in remote locations. The drone can be summoned by smartphone app and uses GPS coordinates to drop the defibrillator by parachute.


Drones And Digital Mappers Boost Nepal Rescue

From the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre in England, the Airborne Radiation Mapping (AARM) drone carries special radiation detection payloads. Deployed into radioactive environments, the UAV can quickly determine whether a particular area is safe humans.


Drones To Assist Search-And-Rescue In Maine

Another innovative design from Boston Dynamics, the SandFlea can jump up to 30 feet in the air to overcome obstacles during reconnaissance missions. Onboard stabilizers keep the bot level while it's in flight, and the bot is accurate enough to jump directly into second- or third-floor windows.


Drones Could Rescue Drowning Victims