Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — or drones, as they’re more commonly known — are set to revolutionize a number of industries. Whether for shipping, agriculture, or military, sometimes you need a machine to do a man’s job.
As drones get smaller and smaller, engineers have to be more creative to pack in all the necessary technology. Inspiration for some of the cutting-edge drones of the future has begun to come in from an unlikely source: bugs.
Nature is an excellent engineer. Billions of years of natural selection have made insects more qualified than any other creature to navigate their particular habitats. When engineers want to put drones into similar situations, it only makes sense to consult the original expert – evolution.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways the tiny drones of the future may resemble insects.
The photo above shows a “robo-fly” next to the edge of a dime for scale. This is a product of the U.S. Army — one it plans to use for covert surveillance purposes. Speeding through dangerous indoor spaces at 20 meters per second, the tiny drone would allow espionage to be conducted with less risk to human life.
This is part of the military’s Fast Lightweight Autonomy program, which aims to develop new algorithms to allow small UAVs to navigate through buildings without the use of a remote pilot or GPS waypoints.
“Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs,” Mark Micire, DARPA’s Program Manager, told CNN. “Goshawks, for example, can fly very fast through a dense forest without smacking into a tree. Many insects, too, can dart and hover with incredible speed and precision.”
The wings of the “robo-fly” are made of zirconium titanate, or PZT, a material that flaps and bends when voltage is applied.
The research team has demonstrated that they can create lift using this method, so the structure has the potential to fly. However, it may take 10–15 years of additional research to develop stability algorithms before the Army has a fully functional insect drone.
A research team from Seoul National University and Harvard has managed to create a tiny robot capable of walking on water and even jumping from its surface without sinking.
While commonly associated with the supernatural, walking on water is surprisingly common in the natural world — and tiny insects are particularly good at it. One such insect is the water strider, a four-legged member of the Gerridae family. It uses the surface tension of the water to sit effortlessly on top without breaking through — and it can even hop away from danger.
The research team studied the water strider to better understand what it does, hoping to emulate its behavior with a robot. The biggest struggle, according to their published findings, was achieving a jump without breaking surface tension. After observing a large number of water striders and analyzing their movements, the scientists cracked the code: the water strider’s legs are slightly curved at the ends, and its leg motion is rotational, which enables it to leap without breaking through the water.
The result is a robotic insect that can exert up to 16 times its own body weight on the water’s surface without breaking through, with no need for highly complex controls. These machines could be used to monitor ecology, kill real insects like mosquitoes, or pretty much anything else involving standing water.
Tiny drones aren’t just looking to insects for locomotive inspiration — their vision systems could also be valuable. While insect vision is far from HD, it helps them avoid collisions while navigating through confined spaces — something small UAVs need to be able to do.
Some have tried to address the issue of collisions with digital cameras, but those tend not to blend well with the need for a small and extremely lightweight package. A group of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology recently took a different approach, developing a new insect-inspired motion sensor for UAVs.
The artificial eye weighs just two milligrams and takes up just two cubic millimeters, and it can detect motion in a range of conditions from a poorly lit room to bright sunlight outdoors — three times faster than actual flying insects.
The sensor features a lens on top of three electronic photodetectors in a triangular pattern. By combining the measurements of each of the individual photodetectors, the device can quickly determine the speed and direction of any motion in its field of view. This is very similar to how the segmented eyes of insects work, and allows very efficient avoidance of obstacles.
Algorithms have already been developed to process signals from the eye, and they will be programmed into small on-board chips to compute things like distance to objects and the amount of time until a potential collision.
What do you think of this insect-inspired drone technology? Can UAVs learn other tricks from nature? Share your thoughts in the comments below!