Bats have the most sophisticated flight mechanisms of all animals. Despite their seemingly reckless flight paths, bats are one of the most precise flying creatures on the planet. Their ability to quickly change direction with great accuracy has intrigued scientists for many years. Although, recreating the complex wing motions a bat uses to fly is incredibly difficult.
Designing a drone with the dexterity of a bat has proven incredibly difficult for roboticists to recreate. However, according to a new paper published by Caltech professor and Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Soon-Jo Chung, the feat has been accomplished.
Winged creatures are no new marvel to robotic aviation. For years engineers have been able to mimic the flight of birds and bugs with robotic counterparts. Bats are incredibly intricate- with over 40 joints in their wings, recreating the same flight abilities of a bat has evaded engineers- until now.
Researchers at Caltech and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) engineered the first robotic bat which flies with nearly the same fidelity as a real bat. The "Bat Bot", as it's named, features soft, articulated wings, capable of mimicking the complex motions of a real bat. The new design simplifies the bat's complex composition of 40 joints down to a reasonable nine.
The Bat Bot is constructed from carbon fiber bones and 3D-printed socket joints which weigh in at a mere 93 grams. Its incredibly thin silicon-based membrane stretches over a wingspan of nearly one-foot. Its complex wings are able to flex, extend, twist at its shoulder, elbows, wrists, and legs.
"This robot design will help us build safer and more efficient flying robots, and also give us more insight into the way bats fly," says Soon-Jo Chung, associate professor of aerospace and Bren Scholar in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist. (Caltech manages JPL for NASA.)
The robot's ability to individually move each wing while constantly altering the wing's shape enables it to perform the complex maneuvers real bats are renowned for. Furthermore, its ability to manipulate its flying characteristics gives it the added advantage of optimizing its efficiency, speed, and dexterity while maintaining a quiet, low-profile design.
"Our work demonstrates one of the most advanced designs to date of a self-contained flapping-winged aerial robot with bat morphology that is able to perform autonomous flight," Ramezani adds.
The advantages of the Bat Bot
One of the key features of the Bat Bot is its flexible wing membrane. Conventional lightweight fabrics (like nylon and Mylar which are used on artificial flying devices) cannot be easily stretched. In its place, Caltech engineers resorted to a much stretchier counterpart- a custom ultra-thin (56 microns), a silicone-based membrane that simulates stretchable, thin bat wings.
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The Bat Bot's flexible wings have the potential to significantly increase the efficiency of current flying robots. As the robot flaps its wings, its stretchable wings become inflated with air. When the wing reaches the lowest part on its downward flap, the membranes quickly snap back, releasing a blast of air. The increase in downward thrust creates a huge amplification of power.
The Bat Bot's current design is not yet advanced enough to support long-distance missions. Although, as the research team behind the project refine the robot, it could become an integral device to be used for close quarter, urban environments.
Written by Maverick Baker