Minggu, 01 April 2012

Army Wants Flapping Wings to Fly Drones of the Future

Drones of the future won’t just fly alongside birds. They’ll actually fly a lot like them, thanks to a new Army program that’s looking to mimic avian flight in the development of new unmanned vehicles.
As part of their $2 million budget for technology development in 2013, the Army’s planning to investigate new locomotive strategies for drones. In particular, Inside Defense reports, they’re interested in “flapping-wing” technology that would allow drones to better navigate rugged, unpredictable environments.
This is only the latest in a series of military-backed projects that’d turn to biology for inspiration in the manufacture better airborne machines. Already, the Navy’s funding research into the movements of fish and the “echolocation” abilities of bats. The tiny hairs of insects have inspired another Pentagon projectthat’d boost the navigational abilities of itty-bitty micro-drones, by allowing the ‘bots to detect and react to wind. And let’s not forget the Great Horned Owl Program, which is trying to render drone flight as silent as, well, owls.
The logic behind flappable wings is simple: They’re more efficient and wind-tolerant than inert wings, which means that drones with flapping wings could fly with more agility, and even stop mid-flight to hover in the air. Right now, the military’s drones are limited in their ability to stop-and-start in the air — a serious barrier to drones offering surveillance of a given area. The issue is even the topic of acrowdsourced challenge from Darpa, the military’s far-out research agency, who last year asked groups of civilians to design drones that could fly to a specific location, then hover and perform surveillance tasks for up to three hours.
One company, Aerovironment, has already designed a winged drone — the Hummingbird — that exemplifies the benefits of flapping-wing technology. Using only its wings for propulsion, the Hummingbird is able to fly forwards and backwards, hover in mid-air (despite gusts of wind) and zip through doorways or other passages. All that, and the tiny drone — weighing 19 ounces — transmits real-time video feeds to human operators.
Very cool, except that the ‘bot is limited by a flight time of eight minutes. Indeed, the problem of battery life is one of the major limiting factors towards the development of winged drones. Because flapping wings sap a ton of power, researchers are still trying to figure out how to make the ‘bots last for more than a few minutes once airborne.
The Army’s research teams have reportedly come up with a few different flapping wing prototypes, however. Next up? Testing those models out in a wind tunnel, which is opening up next year at the military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.

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