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Flapping insect-style drone could inspire new generation of micro-machines

Professional Engineering

DelFly Nimble hovers in stationary flight (Credit: Henri Werij, TU Delft)
DelFly Nimble hovers in stationary flight (Credit: Henri Werij, TU Delft)

A nimble insect-inspired micro-drone could lead to a new generation of lightweight, agile flying machines, its creators have said.

Researchers at the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory at TU Delft in the Netherlands built the “autonomous, free-flying and agile flapping-wing robot” to open up new drone applications in future.

“Insect-inspired drones have a high potential for novel applications as they are lightweight, safe around humans and are able to fly more efficiently than more traditional drone designs, especially at smaller scales,” said scientific leader professor Guido de Croon.

“However, until now, these flying robots had not realised this potential since they were either not agile enough – such as our [previous project] DelFly II – or they required an overly complex manufacturing process.”

The new DelFly Nimble has flapping wings that beat 17 times per second, generating the force needed to stay airborne but also to control flight with minor adjustments. The 29g robot can fly at up to 15km/h and perform “aggressive” manoeuvres such as 360º flips like loops and barrel rolls. The 33cm wingspan can carry the drone 1km or hover for five minutes on a full battery charge.

The researchers also created the drone to help improve the understanding of insect flight, as part of a collaboration with Wageningen University & Research.

“When I first saw the robot flying, I was amazed at how closely its flight resembled that of insects, especially when manoeuvring,” said experimental zoologist Florian Muijres from Wageningen. “I immediately thought we could actually employ it to research insect flight control and dynamics.”

Flying animals both power and control flight by flapping their wings. This enables small natural flyers such as insects to hover close to a flower, but also to rapidly escape danger.

The DelFly Nimble was able to demonstrate how fruit flies control their turn angles to maximise ‘escape performance’. This allowed researchers to identify and describe a new passive aerodynamic mechanism that assists the flies, and potentially other flying animals, in steering their direction through rapid turns.

The research was published in Science.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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