Scientists Turn to Nature to Create Next Generation of Drones

May 24, 2014 09:29 AM EDT | Matt Mercuro

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Scientists have turned to nature in order to design the next generation of drones.

In an issue of the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, 14 research teams in Europe and the U.S. revealed drones with bird-like talons, which allows them to grab objects.

Some of them are able to avoid obstacles simply by using visual sensors, according to the journal.

The technology could allow them to fly in built-up areas as effectively as birds and flying insects.

Aerial robotic expert Dr. Mirko Kovac from Imperial College said to BBC News that with greater understanding of the feats of navigation and control that flying animals are capable of, drones inspired by nature could become part of our daily lives.

"There is no drone that can avoid a wind turbine," Prof. Lentink said to BBC News. "And it is very difficult for drones to fly in urban environments."

Lentink pointed out that even pigeons can fly where current drones can't.

These devices may eventually be used in search and rescue missions, and for military surveillance as well, according to the journal.

Researchers from the University of Maryland were able to built sensors for their experimental flying robot based on nature's design of insect eyes in order to mimic the bugs' "amazing capability of flight in clutter," according to Lentink.

They used tiny cameras connected to an attached computer programed to help the drones avoid crashes to create the "eyes," according to the journal.

A different team of researchers, led by Prof. Kenny Bauer at Brown University, were able to make an accurate copy of a bat's wing to utilize its range of movement and flexibility, according to BBC News.

The wings could be an important feature to add to drones, due to their tolerance of impact and ability to adapt to airflow.

"They deform instead of breaking," said Lentink. "They are also adapting better to the airflow because they're so flexible."

Dr. Mirko Kovac, director of aerial robotics at Imperial College, London, and his colleagues are currently working on creating robots that are able to perch on trees or similar objects.

"I'm very excited about the future of this field," he said, according to BBC News. "There are lots of tasks that we can do with flying robots, such as sensing pollution, observing and protecting wildlife, or we could use them for search and rescue operations after tsunamis."

Kovac believes this will allow drones to become "mobile networks of sensors."

 "It's important that the applications benefit humanity. We must take the responsibility to build robots that are beneficial to society and used in an ethical and positive way," he added.

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