23rd Mar 2013

The Nano Hummingbird: a bird-based flying machine

No thrusters, no propellers—just flapping wings. Those were the constraints DARPA (the research department of the U.S. military) gave a company called AeroVironment in order to create a tiny, bird-based flying machine. The manouverability of modern flying machines pales in comparison to even the everyday pigeon, because birds can swoop, dive, glide and alight by simply flapping their wings—current fixed-wing aircraft and rotary-wing helicopters can’t achieve that amount of dynamism. So engineers and designers at AeroVironment turned to biomimicry and drew inspiration from nature: the mechanics of bird flight. Using machine tools, microscopes, and a Swiss watchmaker’s lathe to create parts, the team custom-built a robotic aircraft whose wings change angle in order to generate thrust and change their angle of attack, and whose tail tilts and rotates just like bird’s tail feathers to help guide and control. Called the Nano Hummingbird, this tiny batter-powered aircraft can travel at speeds of over 17 kilometres per hour and resist gusts of wind of 8 kilometres per hour, but weighs less than an AA battery and can fit in the palm of your hand. It also has a communications system and a built-in camera, so it can be controlled at a distance using only a live video stream. Its possible future applications include not only military surveillance, but also search-and-rescue missions. However, the aircraft likely going to stay small for a while—their design has a long way to go before they’re able to land as smoothly as a bird and are ready for the runway.

(Image Credit: Popular Mechanics/Discover)

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    Biomimicry leads to such fascinating designs.
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