|Scientists have turned to Mother Nature’s most adept aerial acrobats – birds, bees, bats and other animals -- to inspire their designs for self-directed drones. With the right tweaks, these drones have the potential to fight forest fires, spot poachers and catch polluters. But first the unmanned machines have to be able to maneuver in tight spaces and think for themselves. And that’s where nature’s original high-fliers come in.
Swallows, for example, swoop and swerve in patterns that would knock top fighter pilots unconscious. Tracing the birds’ paths, along with those of other species, scientists are learning how to make their drones more nimble.
Recently, a team from MIT created an artificial pilot that could control a birdlike drone to twist through different sets of goalposts. To zoom through vertical goalposts, the drone knifes sideways and just slips by. The drone can do this and then quickly right itself to shoot through a set of horizontal goalposts too.
To navigate obstacles a bit more complex than lab set ups, the team also created an autopilot system for the drone to track how close it got to things like trees and buildings. Ultimately, the goal is to create an onboard computer that can tell the drone to pitch and roll out of harm’s way.
That same team also created a drone that can hit the brakes and safely park itself on a thin wire. If a fixed-wing aircraft did this, it would stall and crash. But by creating a computer algorithm to read airflow over the wings and adjust its tail flaps, the drone sets itself down safely without a scratch.