Are bio-inspired drones the next big thing in unmanned flight?

A body of research, supported by startup developments, suggests that nature-inspired drones are the future of flying.

Plans for the future of aviation include seeing a small army of drones compete for space in the sky with the 50 billion birds in the world. But there’s also the potential of a welcome home, where drones that look like birds end up flying alongside inspiring animals and traditional quadcopters.

A new series of nature-inspired drones, many of them university spin-offs, are capturing the attention of investors. animal dynamics, which launched in 2015 as a spin-off of an Oxford University project and has since raised £35million, sells the parafoil drone Stork, which, while not looking much like an animal, includes inspiration from the nature in terms of how you work. (An earlier design, Skeeter, was more closely inspired by the motion of a dragonfly’s wings, including its flapping propulsion.)

bio-inspired drones
The Stork parafoil drone. Credit: Animal Dynamics

“We know there are things in nature that have developed really great solutions to problems we also face as humans,” says Ian Foster, Head of Engineering at Animal Dynamics, who is one of the company’s 91 staff members.

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This is something Matěj Karásek sees echoes of in his own company. Karásek is the founder of the Dutch startup Flappers (formerly Flapper Drones), a spin-off of Delft University of Technology, which has two employees and has raised €100,000 in seed money. The university project had been going on for nearly two decades and was designed to try to develop a bio-inspired drone that was lightweight.

The size and scale aspect is a necessary evil, says Karásek. “One of the main advantages of bio-inspired drones is that they have to be small because of the physics,” he explains. This allows them to perform more detailed and skilled tasks that larger drones cannot, making what may initially seem like a limitation into a virtue.

Creating a large nature-inspired drone encounters the same problem the dodo had: it can’t fly. The small size also brings another benefit: “If you keep them small, they’re very safe, not just because of their size, but because they have soft wings,” says Karásek.

bio-inspired drones
The Flapper Angel. Credit: Flapper Drones

Christoffer Johansson of Lund University, part of a university research group that recently published a paper outlining the development of a robotic avian winghe also sees safety as one of the benefits of bio-inspired drones.

“Quadcopters are sensitive to damage,” he says. “If they hit something, they break. The ones that slam might be less sensitive and potentially something that could boot up again if it crashes.

Points of differentiation

Animal Dynamics’ Stork drone doesn’t see size as an issue. Its parafoil can carry a 135-kilogram payload up to 400km, thanks to the nature-inspired revolution of simply gliding for miles without powering the engine – something that Foster, the company’s chief engineering officer, believes makes it useful for work in less built-up areas.

“We want to be able to operate in very remote locations,” he says. “We are delivering aid to an area that has collapsed infrastructure. There won’t be an airport there.”

But for drone companies like Flapper looking to find a niche in more built-up and populated environments, security is one area where it sees its range of bio-inspired drones as a key point of differentiation. “If you fly into something with a conventional drone, sharp propellers might cut things, but with soft wings, they actually bounce off objects,” Karásek says.

Flapper was born in 2019 to solve a completely different market need in the world of entertainment. Karásek envisioned his bird-like drones taking the place of real birds in theme park shows. Then the pandemic broke out and demand in the sector suddenly plummeted. Flapper has since looked beyond the entertainment industry, touting its drone as the world’s first commercially available bio-inspired drone that can hover in the air.

bio-inspired drones
The flapper butterfly. Credit: Flapper Drones

And it’s not just in the balance that the new raft of bio-inspired drones can do differently from quadcopters already on the market.

“There are still a lot of things that animals do much better than mechanical drones,” says Arthur Holland Michel, author of a book on the history of drones. “The ability to perch on a wide range of surfaces and structures, for example. Either take off and land vertically without expending much energy, be agile and fast in flight, or fly for a long time.” For these reasons, bio-inspired drones hold great promise,” says Michel.

Security and subtlety

The lack of pushiness is one way Flapper hopes to market its products. In addition to the drone’s ability to hover and its safety, in the event of a collision, Flapper also claims that it is quieter than more traditional quadcopter competitors. “It’s a different frequency,” Karásek says. “It’s not this high-pitched hum of a propeller, but it’s lower frequencies that are less intrusive and more pleasant.”

All of this matters, the Flapper team believes, as the use of drones becomes more commonplace and integrated into our daily lives. The commercial drone industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 24% each year through 2030, according to an industry analysis.

“As we use more and more robots and flying robots, we will be surrounded by them,” says Karásek. “Safety is going to become very important, because right now that’s what limits the use of drones.”

Regulation is cited by both Karásek and Foster as a major factor holding back their growth. “As we build trust with regulators, we can expand,” Foster says. “It is a gradual and incremental approach. It’s not about developing a product, selling it to someone and going. The regulatory framework does not exist at the moment ».

Even if it were, these bio-inspired drones have their drawbacks. More sci-fi plans for the future use of drones include carrying relatively large payloads, ridding road networks of cargo trucks, and hauling products across the sky. It’s something bio-inspired drones will struggle with.

Right now, Flapper sells drones with a wingspan of 50cm, which Karásek calls “quite big.” The company plans to miniaturize, rather than expand, the size of the devices. With the current state of technology and hardware, Karásek believes it’s possible to make his drones half the size of their current ones, but that includes tradeoffs, thanks to limitations on actuator technology.

bio-inspired drones
The NimblePlus Flapper drone. Credit: Flapper Drones

Karásek declined to share how many drones Flapper is selling, but said the company was more focused on quality than quantity and was trying to find markets outside the mainstream.

“If we compete with toy manufacturers, they will copy us,” Karásek says. “If we compete against [giant Chinese drone manufacturer] DJI, they will copy us too. We are trying to find our own way to continue developing the technology, but still keep our niche.”

The current focus on bio-inspired drones reflects an interest in the romantic nature of the drone, Michel admits.

“In addition to their potential practical benefits, bio-inspired drones also have significant storytelling power,” he says. “They look so futuristic and tap into a primal human allure. A drone that looks like a bat or an eagle is much more likely to generate interest than a plain old quadcopter.”

Nature-inspired designs also benefit from a larger push toward sustainability, Foster reckons.

“Nature is very efficient,” he says. “Nature doesn’t have much energy to throw away. As human beings we have gone through a phase where energy was cheap. You could dig another piece out of the ground and throw some fuel on it.”

The bio-inspired drone niche is also one that European countries feel are better placed to address, rather than compete with the Chinese and US giants on more traditional drones, which have already established companies. The point of differentiation is critical in a competitive and growing industry. And in a space where standard drones are traditionally viewed as quadcopters, these more bio-inspired versions stand out.