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'Urban soaring' UAV to take flight

RMIT University researchers in Melbourne, Australia, are 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.

The project to develop a bio-inspired unmanned aircraft is being carried out with Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

Lead researcher Dr Reece Clothier said soaring birds use positive air flows generated around features such as cliffs or large buildings to maintain lift.

‘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 Clothier said in a statement. ‘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,’ said Dr Palmer.

 The project is being supported by Australia’s Defence Science Institute.

Readers' comments (3)

  • I do recall a comment from one of my mentors in the US in the late 60s -the chap who invented Agilon (a method of texturing yarn, but didn't write it in his Lab notebook so lost the patent to another researcher!)- that if mankind had copied the lazy birds first (instead of trying to mimic flapping wings!) we would be 50 years ahead in aviation!

    Mike B

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  • I think the following platform would be ideal for this application.
    It comprises:
    1. "Almost" ready to fly glider kit.
    2. Can be used with a powerful brushless motor/electronic speed controller/lithium polymer battery for highly efficient initial launch and some capability on loss of thermals.
    3. Large cockpit for necessary instrumentation/CCTV equipment.
    4. 4 independent wing control surfaces, in addition to tail surfaces, for advanced performance enhancing features such as variable camber.(Not quite a flapping wing!)
    Thousands of aeromodellers have been thermal soaring for years through the glider route- surely better than imitating the birds?

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  • Actually, because of my HAM experience that caters to small field soaring, I believe the application premise is wrong; and the better profile family would be a lightweight flat bottom with camber adjusted to handle loading necessary (because of equipment, and airspeed needed to accomplish task), and proper airframe damping. Then, using turbulation to expand speed range would cut down on wing controls and the extra complications for the system's programming.

    This simplification should get the system into the air faster with less finessement delays.

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