A body of research, supported by startup developments, suggests that nature-inspired drones are the future of flight.
Plans for the future of aviation include a small army of drones competing for space with the world’s 50 billion birds. But there’s also the potential of a transitional home, where drones that look like birds fly alongside the animals they’re inspired by and the traditional quadrocopters.
A new line of nature-inspired drones, many of which are university spin-offs, are catching investors’ attention. Animal Dynamics, which was founded in 2015 as a spin-off of an Oxford University project and has since raised £35million, sells the Stork parafoil drone which – although it doesn’t look very animal-like – draws inspiration from nature in regards to how it works. (An earlier project, Skeeter, was more inspired by the movement of a dragonfly’s wings, including its flapping drive.)
The parafoil drone Storch. Credit: Animal Dynamics
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“We understand that there are things in nature that have developed really excellent solutions to problems that we face as humans,” says Ian Foster, Animal Dynamics’ head of engineering, who is one of the company’s 91 employees.
Matěj Karásek finds this again in his own company. Karásek is the founder of the Dutch startup Flapper (formerly Flapper Drones), a spin-off from Delft University of Technology, which has two employees and has raised €100,000 in seed capital. The university project ran for almost two decades and was intended to try to create a bio-inspired drone that is lightweight.
The size and scope aspect is a necessary evil, says Karásek. “One of the main advantages of bio-inspired drones is that they have to be small due to physics,” he explains. This allows them to do more detailed, fine-grained tasks that larger drones can’t—and make a virtue of what might initially seem like a limitation.
Developing a large, nature-inspired drone encounters the same problem as the dodo: it cannot fly. The small size has another advantage: “If you keep them small, they are very safe, not only because of their size, but also because they have soft wings,” says Karásek.
The Flapper Angel. Credit: Flapper Drones
Lund University’s Christoffer Johansson, part of a university research team that recently published a paper outlining the development of a robotic wing for birds, also sees safety as an advantage of bio-inspired drones.
“Quadrocopters are sensitive to damage,” he says. “If they hit something, they break. Fluttering ones might be less sensitive and might be something that could restart again in a crash.”
Animal Dynamics’ Stork drone doesn’t see size as an issue. Its parafoil can carry a 135-kilogram payload up to 400 km thanks to the nature-inspired revolution of simply gliding for miles without powering the motor – something Foster, the company’s technical lead, believes works for useful in less built areas. areas up.
“We want to be able to operate in places where they are very remote,” he says. “We are delivering aid to an area where infrastructure has collapsed. There will be no airport there.”
But for drone companies like Flapper, trying to find a niche in more built-up, populated environments, safety is one area where the range of bio-inspired drones is a key differentiator. “If you fly into something with a conventional drone, the sharp propellers might slice into things, but with soft wings they actually bounce off objects,” says Karásek.
Flapper was founded in 2019 to fill a completely different market need in the world of entertainment. Karásek envisioned his bird-like drones taking the place of real birds in theme park shows. Then the pandemic struck and demand in the industry suddenly plummeted. Flapper has since looked beyond the entertainment industry, touting his drone as the world’s first commercially available bio-inspired drone capable of hovering in the air.
The Flapper Butterfly. Credit: Flapper Drones
And it’s not just the hovering that can set the new line of bio-inspired drones apart from quadcopters already on the market.
“There are still a lot of things that animals can do much better than mechanical drones,” says Arthur Holland Michel, author of a book on the history of drones. “Like the ability to sit on a range of surfaces and structures. Or to take off and land vertically without using a lot of energy, to fly agile and fast, or to fly really long.” For these reasons, bio-inspired drones are very promising,” says Michel.
security and subtlety
The lack of intrusiveness is one way Flapper hopes to market its wares. As well as the drone’s ability to hover and its safety should a collision occur, Flapper also says it’s quieter than its more traditional quadcopter competitors. “It’s a different frequency,” says Karásek. “It’s not that high-pitched hum of a propeller, but it’s lower frequencies, less intrusive and more pleasant.”
All of this is important, says the Flapper team, as the use of drones becomes more commonplace and integrated into our daily lives. According to an industry analysis, the commercial drone sector is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 24% per year until 2030.
“As we use robots and flying robots more and more, we will be surrounded by them,” says Karásek. “Security will become very important because that currently limits the use of drones.”
Regulation is cited by both Karásek and Foster as one of the most important inhibitors to their growth. “If we build trust with regulators, we can expand our footprint,” says Foster. “It’s a phased, incremental approach. It’s not about developing a product, selling it to someone and getting started. The regulatory framework is not in place at the moment.”
Even if it were, these bio-inspired drones have their drawbacks. Sci-fi-like plans for the future use of drones include carrying relatively large payloads, ridding road networks of trucks and instead shifting product transportation to the air. Bio-inspired drones will have to struggle with this.
Flapper currently sells drones with a wingspan of 50 cm, which Karásek describes as “quite large”. The company plans to miniaturize rather than expand the size of the devices. With the current level of technology and hardware, Karásek believes it’s possible to make his drones half the size they currently are, but that involves trade-offs thanks to limitations in actuator technology.
The Drone Flapper NimblePlus. Credit: Flapper Drones
Karásek declined to share the number of drones Flapper has sold, but said the company is more focused on quality than quantity – and is looking for markets outside of the mainstream.
“If we compete against toy manufacturers, they will only copy us,” claims Karásek. “If we fight it [giant Chinese drone manufacturer] DJI, they will just copy us too. We’re trying to find our own way of advancing the technology but keeping our niche.”
The current focus on bio-inspired drones reflects an interest in the romantic nature of drones, says Michel.
“Beyond their potential practical use, bio-inspired drones also have significant narrative power,” he says. “They just look so futuristic and draw on a primal human fascination. A drone that looks like a bat or an eagle is a lot more interesting than a regular old quadcopter.”
The nature-inspired designs also benefit from a broader push for sustainability, says Foster.
“Nature is very efficient,” he says. “Nature doesn’t have a lot of energy to throw around. We went through a phase as humans when energy was cheap. You could dig another chunk out of the ground and dump some more fuel on it.”
The bio-inspired drone niche is also one that European countries feel better positioned to compete in mainstream drones with Chinese and US giants, which have established companies that are already well established. Point of differentiation is key in a competitive, growing sector. And in a space where commercial drones have traditionally been viewed as quadcopters, these more bio-inspired versions stand out.
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