TU Delft researchers from the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVlab) presented a novel insect-inspired flying robot in Science. In a collaboration with Wageningen University and Research, the scientists developed a first autonomously flying robot that mimics a fruit fly, called the DelFly Nimble. The development of the robot and its exceptional flying capabilities open up new possibilities for drone applications.
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DelFly Nimble drone inspired by insects
In collaboration with Wageningen University and Research, a team of TU Delft scientists from the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVlab) presented a novel insect-inspired flying robot in Science (14 September 2018).
The autonomously flying robot is called the DelFly Nimble and the wing-flapping drone has great flying capabilities similar to those of a fruit fly.
Development of the drone improved the team’s understanding of how fruit flies control aggressive escape maneuvers. The research is expected to open up new drone applications as well as improved understanding of insects.
Flying animals and insects have long grabbed the attention of biologists. In recent years they have also inspired scientists and technologists who are interested in developing devices with similar flying capabilities.
Just take a look at hummingbirds that can hover closely next to a flower. Or flies that are great at avoiding being swatted with their excellent escape maneuvers. And it becomes easy to understand the fascination people have with their flying capabilities.
Subject to study are not only the complex wing movements and aerodynamics but also the sensory and neuro-motor systems during such agile maneuvers. Researchers have been trying copy and mimic the these for the development of small and lightweight robots and drones.
How the DelFly Nimble flies
The TU Delft researchers developed a drone that so far seems to be unmatched in its performance. The wings of the DelFly Nimble flap 17 times per second and allow the little drone to not only generate enough lift to stay airborne but also to control its flight and maneuver. Above all the flying robot features a simple and easy-to-produce design. It has a top speed of about 16 mph and can perform agile and complex motions such as 360-degree flips, loops, and barrel rolls.
The DelFly Nimble has a 13-inch wingspan and weighs 29 grams. It is able to fly for five minutes or about three-quarters of a mile on a single battery charge.
Fruit fly escape maneuvers
Prof. Florian Muijres from the Experimental Zoology Group of Wageningen University & Research said:
“When I first saw the robot flying, I was amazed at how closely its flight resembled that of insects, especially when manoeuvring. I immediately thought we could actually employ it to research insect flight control and dynamics.”
Prof. Muijers had done extensive research on the way fruit flies fly in the past and the combined team programmed the DeFly Nimble drone to fly in a similar way so that it would help with further research of the insects. Especially those escape flight maneuvers the perform to avoid being swatted.
The DelFly Nimble drone was able to demonstrate how the flies control their turn angle and maximize their escape performance.
Researcher Karásek says that:
“In contrast to animal experiments, we were in full control of what was happening in the robot’s ‘brain.’ This allowed us to identify and describe a new passive aerodynamic mechanism that assists the flies, but possibly also other flying animals, in steering their direction throughout these rapid banked turns. “
Future drone applications
TU Delft’s MAVlab has been studying insect flight and how to apply that to flying robots and drones for more than ten years.
Prof. Guido de Croon, the scientific leaders of MAVlab says that:
“Insect-inspired drones have a high potential for novel applications, as they are light-weight, safe around humans and are able to fly more efficiently than more traditional drone designs, especially at smaller scales. However, until now, these flying robots had not realized this potential since they were either not agile enough — such as our DelFly II — or they required an overly complex manufacturing process.”
The DelFly Nimble is based on existing manufacturing methods and it can be build using off-the-shelf components. Also, its flight-time is long enough for real-world applications.
The drone will be further developed by the team of scientists of the TU Delft and Wageningen Universities. The project is funded by the Dutch science foundation NWO.
Next time I’m in the Netherlands, I will try to stop by get some more information on this intriguing drone.
What do you think about the DelFly Nimble? Let us know in the comments below.
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