It’s a bird! it’s a plane! No – it’s somewhere in between.
Melbourne researchers are developing drones that will detect and glide on natural air currents to conserve energy – something birds have been doing for millennia.
In the right conditions, the drones could glide between buildings and skyscrapers for hours on end, barely expending any battery power, project leader Dr Reece Clothier of RMIT University says.
He and his colleagues are working on specialised sensors that will enable autonomous drones to detect surrounding wind patterns in real time.
The drones could use the information to navigate towards favourable updrafts, while also avoiding damaging eddies and turbulent air.
“It’s replicating what birds do,” he says. “They know where these updrafts are, they fly to them and they hold their position.”
The idea struck Dr Clothier and his research team as they watched birds surfing the updrafts between skyscrapers in Melbourne’s CBD.
“We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to develop an unmanned aircraft that could do exactly what those birds are doing?'”
A prototype drone unveiled on Monday is named Kestrel – a homage to the falcons that hover on headwinds and then swoop swiftly on their prey.
It’s early days, but Dr Clothier says the technology could one day be integral.
“Unmanned aircraft are likely to see a lot of applications that require them to fly in built-up areas,” he says – from policing and inspecting buildings to surveillance and even window-washing.
The research is focused on fixed-wing drones, but Dr Clothier says there’s no reason it couldn’t be extended to drones powered by rotors.
The project is just the latest to look to nature for inspiration.
Last week, German scientists unveiled a prototype bionic kangaroo that uses elastic “tendons” and pneumatic pumps to recycle kinetic energy from one jump to the next.
Scientists said the concept, which helps the kangaroo travel vast distances at speed, could also improve the automation processes used to manufacture things such as cars and computers.
“Nature is always moving towards some kind of optimal state,” Dr Clothier says. “Eventually nature will migrate towards the best solution.”