Volume 9 of scientific journal Bioinspiration & Biomimetics has been released, with the latest in experimental robots. These included flying drones that take their cue from birds, including those that can come together in a flock formation.
The research was conducted by fourteen different teams that each presented their findings, and the prototypes for the new robots. They were based on bats, bird, insects and flying snakes to create a more fluid and intuitive form of motion you would normally find in nature. One even simulated the flight pattern of a moth in the vortex of a tornado.
What is the point of the research? It is hoped that by developing robots that can fly within these conditions, they will be able to create drones that cope with the differing airflow and conditions of urban or populated environments. Turbulent air currents, other aircraft, and obstacles such as buildings and power lines currently make it impossible for drones to enter certain areas and navigate them effectively.
By giving them a more natural movement, drones will be able to make quicker turns, duck and fly above these obstacles. With sensors based on insect eyes they will be able to ascertain distances more effectively, and move through narrow spaces that would otherwise present a serious crash hazard. Using more flexible materials, they hope drones can twist to avoid sudden violent winds or changes in air pressure.
All of this has another future potential for industry improvement: making long distance drones. Right now, regulations tend to state that small aircraft used for purposes like aerial wildlife photography must remain within a visual distance of all operators. If drones were given the ability to sense potential threats, obstacles and changes in pressure, they could react without the need for an operator having a full visual from the ground.
Of course, not all drone uses are harmless or used for purely beneficial reasons. Such robots could easily be adapted for military purposes, and it is safe to assume that any advances in this regard will be quickly adopted by the armed forces. You only have to look at current drone use to see the horrifying implications when (it isn’t an if) the defense department in the US, for example, begins building their own versions.
Not only that, but we have the issue of spying to consider. How long until such drones are adopted by the NSA or other global intelligence agencies? With more freedom of movement, wouldn’t they be easier to hide? Especially as they are built to navigate urban areas.
But researcher at Stanford University, Dr Mirko Kovac, remains hopeful.
I’m very excited about the future of this field, he said in an interview with the BBC.
There are a lot of tasks that we can do with flying robots, such as sensing pollution, observing and protecting wildlife, or we could use them for search and rescue operations after tsunamis. We must take the responsibility to built robots that are beneficial to society and used in an ethical and positive way.