Space & Innovation

New Wing Design Powers Crazy Bat Drones

Micro UAVs use muscle-like membrane wings to cover long distances. Continue reading →

Funny thing is, it kind of looks like a Batman vehicle.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have announced successful flight tests for a new kind of biologically inspired aircraft wing. Intended for use in tiny drones called micro air vehicles (MAVs), the design represents a fundamentally different kind of wing template for UAVs.

Bad Idea! Bad Idea! Flamethrower Drone Roasts Turkey

If the artificial wings most closely resemble the wings of bats, that's entirely by design. The Southampton team built a series of computational models to mimic the physiology of bats, which are the only mammals capable of genuine flight.

The wings aren't just vinyl flappy things, either. They're actually electrically active polymer membranes made to function like artificial muscles. The wings morph on their own in response to changing flight conditions, using different levels of voltage to optimize aerodynamic characteristics - on the fly, as it were.

Such efficiency means the wings can potentially power MAV aircraft over much longer distances. The wings stiffen and relax with changing air conditions, but actually have no mechanical parts of their own.

Crazy Car-Sized Drone Flies a Person Autonomously

The MAVs themselves, meanwhile, are being designed in a variety of shapes and sizes - some as small as 15 centimeters across. Researchers say the MAVs have a wide range of potential civil and military applications - such as surveying remote areas or deploying as surveillance units in emergency response scenarios.

In any case, it's been quite the team effort. The membrane wings were developed by University of Southampton and Imperial College London, with additional funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the United States Air Force.

Here's some footage of early tests with the membrane wings, on a MAV skimming the surface of a pond.

click to play video

From their high perspective and discreet presence, drones have the ability to capture unique aerial images. Mobile app maker Dronestagram saw the potential for a contest and this year's winners are truly inspiring. Dronestagram executives, along with staff from National Geographic, reviewed more than 5,000 photos taken by drones around the world to identify the top winners. Here, you'll find aerial imagery ranging from snorkelers in French Polynesia to a cliff diver in Mazatlan, Mexico. Enjoy! Above: This photo radiates suspense as snorkelers swim in the center of eight gliding sharks in French Polynesia. The photo took top honors in the "Nature" category.

A custom-built drone rose above the fog to capture this photograph of the cross at the top of the Cathedral of Maringa in Brazil. It won first prize in the "Places" category.

In the "Dronies" category, which represents selfie-like photos taken with drones, an image of a group of people dressed like they are out of a Where’s Wally scene (better known as Where’s Waldo in America) won first place. Where were they really? At Limassol Carnival in Cyprus.

This picture of participants at the very beginning of La Jolla, San Diego’s Pier-To-Cove ocean race took second in the "Nature" category.

Taking second place in the "Places" category, this photo of the Mont Saint-Michel island commune in Normandy, France, features calm waters, a gorgeous landmark and a spectacular sky.

This photo features Plovdiv, an ancient Bulgarian city, lit up magically at night. The image took second price for the "Popular" category, which represents the most-liked photos.

Taking third place in the "Nature" category, this photo of a tropical island in French Polynesia shows spectacular aerial imagery of a group of people with their toes in the water, along with lush trees and a breathtaking sky. Look closely and you’ll also find a hidden rainbow.

This image of a colorful field of tulips in the Netherlands and a group of people strolling trough them took third prize in the "Places" category.

This adventure-packed photo features a cliff diver in Mazatlan, Mexico, about to plummet into crystal clear water. This image was awarded third place for the "Popular" category.