Nature spent millions of years perfecting flapping-wing flight. Now engineers can reproduce it with machines.
Five years ago, Richard Guiler and Tom Vaneck were sitting at a bar a few blocks from their office, trying to take their minds off work. For nearly a year, the two engineers had been struggling to develop a durable drone that could dodge objects, navigate inside buildings, and fly in stormy weather. They’d tried fixed-wing models, but adding enough sensors to effectively detect obstacles made them too heavy to fly. They’d tried helicopters, but the rotors kept getting tangled in branches and electrical wires. They’d even built a motorized balloon; all it took was a gentle gust of wind to blow it off course.
As they sat nursing their beers, Guiler and Vaneck watched as a fly appeared to slam into a window. Instead of breaking apart on contact as their drones did, the insect bounced off the glass and recovered. Then it did it again.
“It was an epiphany,” says Vaneck, who works for the Massachusetts research and development company Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI). “We realized if we could make a manmade system that could hit things, recover, and continue on, that’s a revolution.”
The idea of borrowing designs from nature is far from new, particularly when it comes to flight. The ancient Greeks dreamed up Daedalus, who fashioned wings for his son (which unfortunately worked a little too well). Leonardo da Vinci sketched a human-powered ornithopter. But until recently, inventors lacked the aerodynamics expertise to turn diagrams into mechanical versions of something as quotidian as a fly or a bee. As technology has advanced, scientists have decoded many of nature’s secrets. And engineers have developed the first flying, insect-inspired vehicles, opening the door to an entirely new class of machine: the microdrone.
“Nature has a several-hundred-million-year lead time on us when it comes to great design,” says Peter Singer, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution. “The robots you know tomorrow are going to look like nothing you know today. More likely, they will look like the animals around you.”
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