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Friday, March 27, 2009

U.S. Air Force studies bats in tweaking design of future micro-drones

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is studying bats and insects in an effort to enhance plans for future micro-unmanned aerial vehicles.   

Scientists for the U.S. Air Force have been examining the properties of flying animals for the improvement of micro-UAVs. Officials said the air force's Office of Scientific Research wanted to introduce the capabilities of bats and birds in the areas of agility and speed.

"Future micro air vehicles will need to be agile, robust and maneuverable, and our research will provide some guidance as to how we might incorporate these features using inspiration from biology," Kenny Breuer, a fluid mechanics professor from Brown University, said.

The air force has been managing two projects in what officials termed biologically-inspired flight. One program included the placing of bats in a wind tunnel to measure their fluid velocities. Another effort was the study of flight properties of bats in a range of environments.

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"Birds, bats and insects can fly in turbulent environments with fast, unpredictable wind gusts," Wei Shyy, an aerospace engineering professor from the University of Michigan, said. "Yet, they can react almost instantaneously and adapt with their flexible wings."

Breuer and Shyy lead separate teams for the air force projects. Officials said the research could lead to the design of micro-UAVs that could fly through buildings or tunnels.

So far, officials said, micro-UAVs have been designed without incorporating the mechanical properties of bats, birds and insects. They said a key property was the ability of these creatures to fly in all weather.

"They're not only lighter, but they also have more adaptive structures," Shyy said. "These natural flyers have outstanding capabilities to remain airborne through wind gusts, rain and snow."

So far, the team led by Breuer has constructed engineering models that mimic specific features found in bat flight. Shyy has focused on hovering and forward flight modes of micro-air vehicles, particularly the link between flexible wing structures and lift and thrust generation.

"If handled appropriately, flexible wing structures can delay stall, enhance stability and increase thrust," Shyy said.

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