Nature's Blueprint: Shapeshifting drone mimics nimble budgies and goshawks

Joseph Flaig

The Quad-Morphing drone adjusts its arms to avoid obstacles in flight (Credit: CNRS/ Aix-Marseille Université/ composite)
The Quad-Morphing drone adjusts its arms to avoid obstacles in flight (Credit: CNRS/ Aix-Marseille Université/ composite)

Engineers have always looked to nature for inspiration.

But today, in the age of simulation and artificial intelligence, how much more can nature teach us? 

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 Quad-Morphing drone

Conventional drones are nimble in the air but have static, fixed shapes unable to adapt to challenging environments. Researchers at the Étienne Jules Marey Institute of Movement Sciences in France realised two very different birds have a useful technique to help tackle the issue.

Flying between densely packed trees at up to 60km/h is challenging, especially with a wingspan of 1.65m, but the goshawk manages it. To fit through tight gaps at speed, the goshawk – and the much less threatening budgerigar – quickly fold their wings in to reduce the span and squeeze through. The technique could be instrumental for the creation of a new generation of adaptable search-and-rescue drones, the team said. 

To develop the idea they created the Quad-Morphing, a quadcopter-style drone with two rotating arms, each with two propellers. The robot’s autopilot automatically adjusts the arms in flight when it approaches a tight gap, turning them parallel to the central axis to halve the total wingspan. After travelling through, the drone switches back to a perpendicular layout to stabilise flight, all while travelling at 9km/h. The autopilot uses a ‘3D localisation system’ to know when it is close to an obstacle, but the team has attached a 120fps camera for independent assessments in future. 

The researchers hope the combination of technologies could help unmanned aerial vehicles travel through buildings and tight passages quickly for search-and-rescue or exploration missions, as accurately as goshawks… or budgies.

Read part one of Nature's Blueprint, on the dragonfly-inspired Skeeter drone, here.

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

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

Read more related articles

Professional Engineering magazine

Current Issue: Issue 4, 2019

Issue 4 cover online
  • Engineering an electric supercar
  • VTOL companies face vertical challenges
  • The Swiss motorsport valley
  • Why women are leaving engineering

View all

Professional Engineering app

  • Industry features and content
  • Engineering and Institution news
  • News and features exclusive to app users

Download the Professional Engineering app

Professional Engineering newsletter

A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won't miss anything

Subscribe to the Professional Engineering newsletter

Opt into your industry sector newsletter

Related articles