Aug 19, 2020

Mimicking birds and insects is the future of drones

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A British biomechanics company is creating drones that mimic a stork and a dragonfly.

Drones are a huge industry. They’re used in agriculture, construction, real estate, filmmaking and military surveillance. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been used to deliver packages and medical supplies, and some companies have even promised that drones could detect COVID-19 symptoms from afar. But in some ways, drones are still in their early stages techwise. 

Some engineers believe the best way to improve the tech is to copy nature.

That’s the thinking at Animal Dynamics, a British tech firm specializing in biomechanics and drone design. CEO Alex Caccia and his colleagues have immersed themselves in the rich complexity of animal and insect life, looking for engineering solutions and finding them in creatures like the dragonfly.

“Dragonfly is a really good example in the insect world of athletic performance in flight. And this is because they’ve got extremely effective control of their wingbeat,” Caccia said. With four powerful wings able to flap independently, it can hover and strike with lightning speed, fly vast distances and remain stable in high winds. It’s the inspiration, said Caccia, for his company’s principal product.

Skeeter, the microdrone. (Photo courtesy Animal Dynamics)

“We’ve spent the last five years making a small, flapping-winged vehicle called Skeeter, and, yeah, it has four flapping wings,” Caccia said, adding that the 9-inch spy drone has attracted investment from the military.

“We’ve made it fly with extraordinarily good performance. Nothing like the level of performance that an insect has, but nonetheless a tiny vehicle is able to fly in very turbulent wind conditions,” Caccia said.

Like the earliest pioneers of aviation, Caccia and his team have also drawn lessons from bird life. A delivery drone they’ve developed is named the Stork, because like the bird, it soars and glides. Instead of a pair of wide wings, his Stork has a parasail, which allows it to conserve energy while carrying small cargoes — like medicines — for long distances over difficult terrain. 

“Once up and flying, it’s very efficient and it’s designed just to carry payload as cheaply as possible,” Caccia said.

His core belief, he said, is how extraordinary the ordinary is. Take the pigeon — it weighs barely a pound and yet can fly at 60 miles an hour for more than 600 miles. That’s the kind of performance that nature routinely delivers and that Caccia would like his machines to emulate.

Stork, which mimics the stork bird. (Photo courtesy Animal Dynamics)

Also watching:

The battle for TikTok is getting a little more heated — I guess I shouldn’t call it a battle. The mysterious forced sale of a foreign company dictated by the president of the United States, where he’s demanding a cut of the sale and apparently personally deciding who can bid — that thing. Oracle is apparently trying to put together a group of investors to take over TikTok’s operations in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, according to the Financial Times. Oracle founder Larry Ellison has been a Trump supporter, so maybe he feels there’s a better shot since Trump, at least initially, opposed the idea of Microsoft buying TikTok. 

Twitter apparently also considered bidding, but insiders say there’s basically no way Twitter could get a loan that big. Also — just me talking here — since Twitter sold Vine in what will go down as arguably the worst business decision in social media history, I just don’t feel like they’ve earned a do-over.

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