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Bird-like drone flaps its wings and uses thermals for lift

Less than one week ago, we posted this article about how drone design takes inspiration from birds (and even insects) when it comes to designing the aircraft. This latest drone study from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) in collaboration with ISAE-Supaéro takes it even a step further. The bird-like drone would have flapping wings and sense gusts and thermals to help it gain speed and altitude. Just like real birds.

Bird-like drone flaps its wings

The experimental drone was developed by RMIT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) research team in collaboration with ISAE-Supaéro. The drone has a small prop up front but also uses flapping wings, gusts, and thermals to maximize its flight time.

In an article by TechRepublic, lead researcher Dr. Abdulghani Mohamed says that this new bird-like drone design:

“Represents a big leap in energy harvesting for drones. With energy storage on small UAVs … most drones of very small sizes can only fly in the proximity of 1 to 2 hours, but you really want to extend that to 24 hours and beyond. In regards to battery technology, while it is improving, it can only give you so much endurance and range, and through energy harvesting, you can definitely extend the operational performance beyond energy storage.”

And rides the gusts and thermals

The bird-like drone uses sensors on its custom controller to calculate the size of gusts that pass the drone. It then decides whether it wants to use the gust or thermal to its benefit.

Dr. Mohamed explains:

“For example if the drone gets hit with a large gust where the drone starts to move upwards or downwards in a heaving motion, the drone will then follow the direction of the gust and gain speed, and once it gains speed, the controller will then decide whether it wants to use that kinetic energy to keep flying at that speed, or whether to exchange it with potential energy to gain height. When do you that, the aircraft is able to be more stable, and extracting energy from the gust makes the drone have more endurance.”

Of course, mimicking the movements of birds is no easy task. ISAE-Supaéro Ph.D. research student Nikola Gavrilovic, who led the system integration and testing of the bird-like drone, says:

“Birds have had millions of years to evolve and perfect these techniques. Trying to mimic them in technology is very difficult but is proving to be a fruitful area of drone research with impressive results.”

This is reinforced by Dr. Mohamed, who says:

“Adaption is the hardest physical part as you are trying to take a complicated bio-system that is very well integrated, and adapting it to what is relatively a very simple mechanical system.”


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Avatar for Haye Kesteloo Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Main Writer at DroneDJ, where he covers all drone related news and writes product reviews. He also contributes to the other sites in the 9to5Mac group such as; 9to5Mac, 9to5Google, 9to5Toys and Electrek. Haye can be reached at or @hayekesteloo