Drones of all sorts are getting smaller and cheaper, and that’s great—it makes them more accessible to everyone, and opens up new use cases for which big expensive drones would be, you know, too big and expensive. The problem with very small drones, particularly those with fixed-wing designs, is that they tend to be inefficient fliers, and are very susceptible to wind gusts as well as air turbulence caused by objects that they might be flying close to. Unfortunately, designing for resilience and designing for efficiency are two different things: Efficient wings are long and thin, and resilient wings are short and fat. You can’t really do both at the same time, but that’s okay, because if you tried to make long and thin wings for micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) they’d likely just snap off. So stubby wings it is!
In a paper published this week in Science Robotics, researchers from Brown University and EPFL are presenting a new wing design that’s able to deliver both highly efficient flight and robustness to turbulence at the same time. A prototype 100-gram MAV using this wing design can fly for nearly 3 hours, which is four times longer than similar drones with conventional wings. How did they come up with a wing design that offered such a massive improvement? Well, they didn’t— they stole it, from birds.