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A bird? A plane? Or both...
07 April 2014
RMIT University researchers in Melbourne, Australia, are developing
bio-inspired unmanned aircraft capable of soaring like birds, boosting
energy efficiency and endurance.
In collaboration with Australia's Defence Science and Technology
Organisation (DSTO), 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.
Lead researcher Dr Reece Clothier said soaring birds used positive air
flows generated around features such as cliffs or large buildings to
"This research aims to develop the sensing and control systems that will
allow a small fixed-wing unmanned aircraft to achieve the same thing," Dr
"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 possible
positive airflows around large buildings. Flying a small aircraft in those
updrafts could significantly increase its endurance.
Dr Jennifer Palmer, a Senior Research Scientist in the Aerospace Division
of DSTO, said the long-term goal was to design an unmanned aircraft that
could 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," Dr Palmer said.
"DSTO undertakes research in a number of areas related to autonomous
unmanned aircraft, and this is a great opportunity to engage with academia
on a project with both scientific challenges and real-world outcomes."
The project is supported by the Defence Science Institute.