Autonomous flapping robot mimics fruit fly manoeuvres

Engineers from TU Delft in the Netherlands have created an agile, autonomous flying robot that uses flapping wings to control its flight in a similar way to a fruit fly.

fruit fly

Known as DelFly Nimble, the robot is helping researchers to better understand the mechanics of insect flight and has potential for a range of new drone applications. Insects use their wings to power and direct their flight, allowing them to hover efficiently as well as accelerate and escape from danger rapidly. DelFly Nimble mimics this capability, beating its wings 17 times per second to stay airborne and also control its flight through subtle changes in wing motion.

“The robot has a top speed of 25km/h and can even perform aggressive manoeuvres, such as 360-degree flips, resembling loops and barrel rolls,” said TU Delft’s Matěj Karásek, first author of the study, which is published in Science. “Moreover, the 33cm wingspan and 29g robot has, for its size, excellent power efficiency, allowing five minutes of hovering flight or more than a 1km flight range on a fully charged battery.”

During testing, the robot was able to mimic the extreme agility of a fruit fly, including the impressive yaw control that allows it to change direction rapidly when evading a threat. The team studied the robot’s motion during rapid banked turns and found that passive motion through the turn generated yaw torque coupling. This correcting yaw rotation propelled the robot toward the escape heading needed for effective turning.

“In contrast to animal experiments, we were in full control of what was happening in the robot’s ‘brain’,” said Karásek. “This allowed us to identify and describe a new passive aerodynamic mechanism that assists the flies, but possibly also other flying animals, in steering their direction throughout these rapid banked turns.”

According to TU Delft, the robot was built using off-the-shelf components. Its agility and lightweight design hold promise for a variety of civilian and military applications, from search & rescue to reconnaissance. What’s more, the researchers claim it can fly more efficiently than traditional drone designs, particularly at smaller scales.