Flying 'Bat Bot' Is Designed to Soar Like the Real Thing

A lightweight robot with thin, silicone-based wings can deep-dive and make sharp turns.

Scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Caltech have designed and successfully tested an autonomous flying robot modeled on the real-life characteristics of a bat.

Dubbed Bat Bot, the robot has a lightweight, carbon-fiber skeleton, a silicone-based membrane for wings, micro-motors that make the wings flap and an on-board computer that runs the show by communicating with several data-gathering sensors to handle flight control and navigation.

"Bat flight is the holy grail of aerial robotics. So we have challenged ourselves to reverse-engineer a bat's unrivaled agility, with an aim to build a safe, energy-efficient robot that can fly like a bat," said Soon-Jo Chung, associate professor of aerospace at Caltech. Chung co-authored a paper just published on the Bat Bot in the journal Science Robotics.

The bot weighs a mere 93 grams (3.3 ounces), and the researchers consider its soft wings – just 56 microns thick and 47 centimeters (19 inches) across – to be among the device's top advantages. The silicone membrane stretches as one piece across the entire breadth of the "animal." Compared to other aerial devices with sharp blades, such as quadcopters, the scientists said, the Bat Bot's wings pose no threat to people or objects in it path.

While the bot was indeed modeled on a bat the researchers did not try to recreate Mother Nature's work to a T. While real bats have more than 40 joints on their wings, the Bat Bot designers wheedled their device down to nine joints controlled by micro-motors and designed to accommodate a small handful of dominant motions used by bats in flight.

The bot, for example, can dive sharply and perform sharp turns. Future plans also call for it to be able to perch, clinging to structures such as steel framing in construction.

Construction, in fact, is one of the applications for which flying bot could prove useful, the scientists said. The bat could monitor building progress, surveil work sites and help compare construction models with the structures actually being created.

The device, the team said, could be equally useful in emergency settings, where first responders might need to go places humans can't, such as tight enclosures with minimal access.

Finally, they added, even home users, such as those with disabilities or the elderly who live in multi-level homes, could find uses for a flying bot. The device could, perhaps, fetch medication or monitor activities in another room.

The Bat Bot isn't ready yet for real-world use, the scientists stressed. For now it is hand-launched to give it some speed and has performed its dives and turns in an indoor, controlled environment, for flights of up to 30 meters (98 feet).

So far, ground netting has protected the bot from damage caused by crashes. The team says it plans further work on the design, to ensure that the bot's electronics are protected, should an accident occur.

The team also will give the bat some spectacles soon.

"The plan, probably within the next year or so, is to get eyes on it. The eyes will be very, very lightweight cameras - basically a lens and a sensor, much like what's in your cell phone," study co-author Seth Hutchinson told Seeker.

WATCH VIDEO: Robot Jellyfish Patrolling the Oceans