Creating Bio-inspired Wings for High-Performance Drones

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Birds have incredible flight capabilities, allowing them to move from elegantly gliding on air currents to diving at high speed to catch prey with high precision. Scientists working within the field of biologically inspired engineering aim to understand the natural abilities of birds and other organisms, and leverage this knowledge to create new technologies that can be applied to solve real world challenges. 

The flexible membrane wings of bats have great performance benefits, such as allowing dynamic fluid-structure interaction, that could highly enhance Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). The thin and flexible wing design can improve aerodynamic fight performance, and combine vehicle agility, enlarged maximum stall angle, extended maximum lift and smooth gust reaction. Membrane vibrations are also known to enhance leading edge vortex shedding, forming large roll up vortices of low pressure content which can significantly contribute to the total lift enhancement at high incidences.

At the RE•WORK Bio-inspired Robotics Summit, Robert Bleischwitz will explore this further in his presentation on 'Flexible Wings & Ground-Effect for High-Performance Drones'. Robert's experience includes maritime technology, aerospace engineering and is now completing a PhD in experimental fluid-dynamics at the University of Southampton. I asked him a few questions to learn more.

What has driven you to work in bio-inspired robotics?
Exploration of the unknown has always been a key element for success in future. Developing new ideas and see them performing better than typical solutions are also a driving force for motivation and passion in personal life. Sharing and adapting ideas with others can flourish ideas to make our world a bit smarter.

What are the leading factors enabling advancements in this field?
Collaborations between universities and industry are one key element. Universities offer expertise and time to find the underlying physics which are essential to develop high performance systems for the market. Interdisciplinary thinking is also very important to distinguish quickly between important and less important problems. Improvements in multi-material printing could extend the application range drastically. Thinking flexible is also a major step in adapting bio-inspired systems.

What new developments in bio-inspired robotics can we expect to see in the next 5 years?
Bio-inspired (flying) robots will fly more silently, with larger range, involving shape adaptable flapping wings without the need for external stabilizer systems or servo motors. Electro-active wings are one way to succeed, allowing static as well as dynamic actuation.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges for adopting robotics in everyday life and industry?
The systems have to be intuitive to use. The systems have also to be safe for the public and misusage.  That means that systems have to sense problematic handling and react automatically.

Which industries do you feel will be disrupted the most by the implementation of robotics?
In my opinion, medicine will probably see one of the biggest changes. Robotic systems can help to tackle the growing pyramid-problem of our society. Intelligent materials and wearable sensing systems could help to see problems coming before they strike, extending the time span to take action.

Which areas do you feel could benefit from cross-industry collaboration?
Aerospace/UAV and the medical industry, 3D printing and the medical industry.

What is currently being developed in your field that will be essential to future progress?
We are focusing on electro-active membranes. These wings can be actively actuated, extending and relaxing like a muscle with a simple DC-power input. The actuation can be done slowly or quickly, getting different wing shapes and wing dynamics. Wings could be actuated in different zones, enabling vehicle control without any mechanical need for stabilizers and their servos. That would simplify the vehicle with less design constrains. It could even offer a big step away from typical propeller propulsion which is known to be of low efficiency for small drones. Flexible flapping wings are important for the future of (unmanned) flying systems.

Join us in London on 12 July for an evening of presentations and conversation on biomimetics, swarm robotics, self-assembly and more at our Bio-inspired Robotics Meetup.

UAVs Drones Smart Materials Robotics Bio-inspired Soft Robotics Biomimicry


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