Your Summer Nemesis Is Shaping Drone Design

As the summer heat starts to swell, that mosquito buzzing in your ear or the fly in the potato salad may be annoying to you, but to scientists, it’s sweet inspiration for new drone designs. Drones have infiltrated research, industry, and even kids’ toy chests, and just like with every consumer trend, the smaller, the better. However, in decreasing the size of drones, their original designs are running into physical limitations, and that’s where our blood-sucking, picnic-ruining friends come in.

The drones you may see the kid down the street use are analogous to the drones corporations are hoping to employ. Their design is much like that of a helicopter propelled by rotor blades. The goal is to one day have tiny drones monitor natural gas pipelines for leaks and possibly give bees a break and help pollinate crops. As manufacturers are being pressed to create miniturized versions of these flying machines, they have found that air friction eventually overtakes lift force, and the drone’s motor overheats and fails. The demand isn’t going away, and in an effort to meet the growing need for smaller drones, scientists are looking at the flapping wings of hovering insects for inspiration.

Mark Jankauski from Montana State University’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering defends the solidifying theory that “flapping wings can scale down almost indefinitely” while still producing sufficient lift force. Now, translating that theory into a working model is difficult since the mechanics of flapping wings remains largely a mystery. The other half of the puzzle is producing a computer program that simulates how wings interact with different materials, such as air. This behavior is extremely complex, and in order to recreate it requires approximating complicated equations derived from detailed measurements of real flapping wings.

Supported by a three-year, $370,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Jankauski and his team are dissecting the physics behind flapping wings and the dynamics involved in their flight. Jankauski admits that they have a long way, and I’m sure many coffee-filled nights, to go before such a design could be implemented in production, stating, “This is a jumping off point.”

Swearingen, M. 18 June, 2019. To improve drones, researchers study flying insects. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2019-06-drones-insects.html.

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