While technology may seem to be moving away from nature, scientists are researching biomimicry architecture — looking at the animal world for inspiration on drone and robot design. By observing traits like skeletal structure and muscle and neural networks from different animal species as examples of biomimicry blueprints, scientists could model technology after nature to develop drones that fly more effectively or robots that have more fluid and natural movements. Three types of creatures are leading the way in influencing how drones and robots will navigate the future.
When it comes to applying animal biology to drone creation, the best place to look is in the air. Birds are influencing the way drones fly for obvious reasons, but also because special traits result in unique flight methods for different types of birds. For example, owls need to be able to hunt quietly. Their silent, aerodynamic wings make this possible; a low aspect ratio and large wingspan causes them to fly slower. The skeletal structure of the bird of prey’s wings also contributes to virtually silent flight, with serrations on the edge of their wings and fringed feather vanes completing the effect, according to the Royal Society. Scientists could use these traits to create quieter drones for use in public spaces — delivery drones, for example — according to Seeker.
Birds have also influenced the way drones can fly in bad weather or hard winds, providing additional examples of biomimicry. Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Laboratory of Intelligent Systems used synthetic wings to help create a drone that can take sharp turns and navigate urban spaces or areas where the wind can change rapidly. They drew inspiration from birds’ ability to change the shape of their wings using their unique skeletal structure, according to Seeker.
Even waterfowl are getting the biomimicry treatment. Diving birds inspired the creation of the Aquatic Micro Air Vehicle (AquaMAV) at the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London. The AquaMAV can dive directly into the water at high speeds, popping back up and expelling water through a jet to return to flight easily. Applications for this type of robot vary from collecting water samples to rescue missions and underwater exploration, according to Seeker.
When it comes to making microrobots fly and navigate more efficiently, insects provide the perfect guide. Butterflies have large wingspans that allow for gliding through the sky with low drag rates, and their forewings produce maximum lift. These features could inspire similar wing structures in flying microrobots, enabling them to fly further and avoid mishaps quickly, according to the Royal Society.
Recently, a study from the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute indicated that honeybees have preferences for left- and right-handedness when in flight. According to Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, this could inform strategies for steering drone fleets. This isn’t the first time Srinivasan and his team have drawn inspiration from the natural world when it comes to aircraft development. Last year, they released a study that proved birds don’t crash in flight because they always veer right, which could have implications for automatic anti-crash systems in aircraft, according to The University of Queensland, Australia.
Other researchers, like Professor Robert J. Full from the University of California Berkley Poly-Pedal Lab, focus on animal body structures to develop biomechanics. Full’s team focuses on features big and small to figure out what traits serve animals best and how to re-create them in robots. For example, the natural world provided the team with inspiration for an autonomous amphibious robot that can travel underwater, a robot that can climb walls like a gecko and more.
The Future of Drones
The pace of technology’s advancement depends on researchers figuring out new ways to make machines more efficient and adaptable. The best examples of those traits come from nature and can be tapped into through biomimicry architecture. If current trends are maintained, we may come to a point where the things that make animals unique are the same things that make drones and robots astounding.
Autonomous system design is an exciting area of innovation, and Northrop Grumman has job openings in the field.