Nature's Blueprint: Dragonfly's turbulence-resistant wings inspire Skeeter drone

Joseph Flaig

Dragonflies' wings' capacity to deal with turbulence is replicated in the Skeeter drone (Credit: Animal Dynamics/ composite)
Dragonflies' wings' capacity to deal with turbulence is replicated in the Skeeter drone (Credit: Animal Dynamics/ composite)

Engineers have always looked to nature for inspiration.

Four billion years of evolution have provided an endless library of knowledge. Leonardo da Vinci looked to bird anatomy when designing his wondrous flying machines, while 500 years later Eiji Nakatsu – a designer on Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train – created a nose shape inspired by the way a kingfisher’s beak slips seamlessly into the water. But today, in the age of simulation and artificial intelligence, how much more can nature teach us? 

Plenty, it seems. From the oil and gas industry to self-driving cars, engineers are still taking inspiration from plants, animals and even single-celled organisms to create the most cutting-edge devices and systems in their sectors.

Some call their work biomimicry, while others prefer the term bio-inspired engineering. Regardless of labels, this week we are looking at five projects and their biological inspirations, revealing how nature continues to offer engineers a guiding hand. 

The Skeeter drone

According to a 2014 study in the journal Nature, dragonflies are the most successful predators – they catch 95% of the prey they target, much more than other hunters. So it’s not surprising that they inspired the Skeeter military surveillance drone from the Animal Dynamics firm and the Ministry of Defence’s R&D lab.

It was not the dragonfly’s ruthless efficiency that led to the Skeeter’s distinctive four-wing design, however. Instead, says Animal Dynamics chief executive Alex Caccia, it was a practical consideration of the design criteria and a solid understanding of how the insects fly. 

The military “want something small that can be carried, has a decent range and can deal with turbulent wind conditions,” he says. “One of the problems with small unmanned vehicles or objects of any sort is they become much less stable because there is significantly less inertia… it’s with that target in mind that we have ended up designing this vehicle.”

The drone’s four flapping wings are convenient for several reasons. As in a dragonfly, they are quiet, handle turbulence with their in-built suspension, and can glide to save energy. The result is a highly efficient 50g drone capable of bursting away quickly to hit 45km/h, then hovering for complex surveillance missions using the in-built camera. 

The Skeeter could have many non-military uses including search-and-rescue missions and farming. Animal Dynamics is flight-testing the drone and hopes to market it in 2021.

Read part two, on the sea snake-styled Eelume, here.

Read part three, on the budgie-influenced Quad-Morphing drone, here.

Read part four, on how slime mould could lead to better self-driving cars, here.

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

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