Tiny flying machines inspired by nature will revolutionize surveillance work

July 28, 2011, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
Tiny flying machines inspired by nature will revolutionize surveillance work
Ready for take-off: a locust awaits its turn to fly

Tiny aerial vehicles are being developed with innovative flapping wings based on those of real-life insects.

Incorporating micro-cameras, these revolutionary insect-size vehicles will be suitable for many different purposes ranging from helping in considered too dangerous for people to enter, to covert missions.

Supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, world-leading research at the University of Oxford is playing a key role in the vehicles' development.

Dr Richard Bomphrey, from the Department of Zoology, is leading this research, which is generating new insight into how have evolved over the last 350 . "Nature has solved the problem of how to design miniature flying machines," he says. "By learning those lessons, our findings will make it possible to aerodynamically engineer a new breed of surveillance vehicles that, because they're as small as insects and also fly like them, completely blend into their surroundings."

Currently the smallest of state-of-the-art fixed-wing unmanned surveillance vehicles are around a foot wide. The incorporation of is the secret to making the new designs so small. To achieve flight, any object requires a combination of thrust and lift. In manmade aircraft, two separate devices are needed to generate these (i.e. engines provide thrust and wings provide lift), this limits the scope for miniaturising flying machines.

But an insect's flapping wings combine both thrust and lift. If manmade vehicles could emulate this more efficient approach, it would be possible to scale down flying machines to much smaller dimensions than is currently possible.

"This will require a much more detailed understanding than we currently have of how insect wings have evolved, and specifically of how different types of insect wing have evolved for different purposes," Dr Bomphrey says. "For instance, bees are load-lifters, a predator such as a dragonfly is fast and manoeuvrable, and creatures like locusts have to range over vast distances. Investigating the differences between insect wing designs is a key focus of our work. These ecological differences have led to a variety of wing designs depending on the task needing to be performed. It means that new vehicles could be customised to suit particular uses ranging from exploring hostile terrain, collapsed buildings or chemical spills to providing enhanced TV coverage of sports and other events".

Dr Bomphrey and his team lead the world in their use of both cutting-edge computer modelling capabilities and the latest high-speed, high-resolution camera technology to investigate insect wing design and performance.

Key to the work is the calculation of air flow velocities around insect wings. This is achieved by placing insects in a wind tunnel, seeding the air with a light fog and illuminating the particles with pulsing laser light – using a technique called Particle Image Velocimetry.

The team's groundbreaking work has attracted the attention of NATO, the US Air Force and the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development. The research is expected to produce findings that can be utilised by the defence industry within 3-5 years, leading to the development and widespread deployment of insect-sized flying machines within 20 years.

"This is just one more example of how we can learn important lessons from nature," says Dr Bomphrey. "Tiny could provide the perfect way of exploring all kinds of dark, dangerous and dirty places."

Dr Bomphrey is using his EPSRC-funded Fellowship to pursue this research. The fundamental aim of the work is to explore how natural selection has impacted on the design of insect wings and how these designs have been affected by the laws of aerodynamics and other physical constraints. "Evolution hasn't settled on a single type of insect wing design," says Dr Bomphrey. "We aim to understand how natural selection led to this situation. But we also want to explore how manmade vehicles could transcend the constraints imposed by nature."

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6 comments

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hyongx
3 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2011
The title is worth a giggle.
But anyway, didn't somebody figure out how to control a housefly's motion with electrodes in its neural pathways? isn't attaching tiny recording or broadcasting devices to real insects cheaper?
axemaster
3.5 / 5 (6) Jul 28, 2011
these revolutionary insect-size vehicles will be suitable for many different purposes ranging from helping in emergency situations considered too dangerous for people to enter, to covert military surveillance missions.

Way to put a cheery face on it. This stuff is going to get abused to the maximum, and will probably be used to subvert democracy and arrest protestors like most advanced surveillance techs.
lovenugget
not rated yet Jul 28, 2011
I read about that hyongx but i think it would be more beneficial to construct a flying machine out of more sturdy material and with a more efficient power source so it can carry heavier payloads.
lovenugget
3 / 5 (2) Jul 28, 2011
axemaster i agree with you- i think the safest way to go about introducing this tech would be to keep it out of the hands of government and into the hands of scientists and enthusiasts. without a wide base like the government has, i'd imagine the tech would be harmless.
maxcypher
not rated yet Jul 28, 2011
It was said about a decade ago, I think, that ubiquitous surveillance was an inevitable development and that one way to make this more palatable for democracy is to make all the surveillance feeds available to everyone; not to just an elite few.
_ilbud
2.6 / 5 (5) Jul 28, 2011
"This stuff is going to get abused to the maximum, and will probably be used to subvert democracy and arrest protestors like most advanced surveillance techs."
Where do you get this crybaby rubbish from? ease back on the Mills and Boon.

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