Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Drone Soars Like a Bird

RMIT University researchers are developing bio-inspired unmanned aircraft that soar like birds, boosting their energy efficiency and endurance.

The research team is aiming to be the first in the world to demonstrate an autonomous unmanned aircraft that can mimic birds by using updrafts around buildings to stay airborne.

Dr Reece Clothier says that soaring birds use positive air flows generated around features such as cliffs or large buildings to maintain lift. “This research aims to develop the sensing and control systems that will allow a small fixed-wing unmanned aircraft to achieve the same thing,” he says.

“Birds make soaring look easy, but when we try to mimic what they know by instinct, we realise just how far advanced nature is in its designs.”

The focus is on proving the feasibility of “urban” soaring, combining real-time sensing of wind with complex flow models to locate updrafts around large buildings. Flying a small aircraft in those updrafts could significantly increase its endurance.

Dr Jennifer Palmer of the Defence Science and Technology Organisation’s Aerospace Division says that the long-term goal is to design an unmanned aircraft that can autonomously predict airflows in its surrounding environment and, by using this information, minimise its energy consumption, maximise its endurance and avoid areas of high turbulence.

“Small aircraft used for communications relay or surveillance and reconnaissance could greatly benefit by having a means of exploiting naturally occurring updrafts and avoiding the deleterious effects of turbulence in urban environments,” Palmer says.