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Drones of a feather

Because of its ability to adapt, drone could prove very efficient at low altitude, in urban environments where winds change rapidly

The drone is more manoeuvrable and more resistant in high winds
The drone is more manoeuvrable and more resistant in high winds

Feathers increase drone's precision during flight

The drone had to be capable of flying between obstacles

A drone has been equipped with feathers with the aim of increasing its accuracy during flight. The bio-inspired device can spread or close its wings while flying, making more manoeuvrable and more resistant in high winds.


Because of its ability to adapt, it could prove very efficient at low altitude, in an urban environment where winds change rapidly and opens up a range of new possibilities.


After observing birds in flight, researchers from the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, EPFL, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, had the idea of building an energy-efficient winged drone capable of changing its wingspan, flying at high speed and moving through tight spaces.


When they need to change direction, increase their speed or counter headwinds, birds alter the configuration of their wings. To steer, for example, they spread one wing and slightly retract the other.


“We were inspired by birds: they can radically transform the size and shape of their wings because they have an articulated skeleton that is controlled by muscles and covered in feathers that overlap when the wings are folded,” said Dario Floreano, head of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems.


The drone also has feathers that it can fold and overlap like a fan.


One of the many challenges was in designing and building the complex morphing mechanism, in other words, mimicking nature to construct the drone.


Morphing wings that can adapt to the environment and weather conditions are an important issue in aeronautics. Engineers are still trying to find the ideal replacement for the rigid wings and ailerons of planes. The wing is composed mainly of composite materials in order to maximise strength while reducing overall weight.


“With the foldable wings, we discovered that we didn’t need ailerons to help the drone turn,” added Floreano. “By changing the wingspan and surface area during flight, we could make it turn automatically.”


The lab’s research has been published in the Royal Society journal Interface Focus and the work was funded by NCCR Robotics.


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