Drone and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designers are often obsessed with creating technologies that can mimic the perfect and precise flying patterns of real life birds. The swooping, gliding, and perching birds make it look magnificently effortless. But anyone who has worked with aircraft, especially the fixed winged ones, knows replicating the motion is anything but simple. Nevertheless, researchers at the University of Bristol claim to have created some smart algorithms and morphing wings that can make their aircraft peach land just like a bird!
To understand how they accomplished this feat, you have to understand how a fixed-wing plane works. When it is airborne, air resistance against its body adds the drag coefficient, which needs to be overcome to continue the flight.
Thus, an aircraft is designed to minimize the drag coefficient. But when it is close to landing, it must increase the drag by tilting back (increase the pitch), so the wings are more exposed to the oncoming air. This exposure has to be handled with precision, as tilting back too far at a slow speed would result in the drag exceeding the lift, causing stalling and a loss of control.
The University of Bristol’s researchers dealt with the problem as the design enables the UAV to tilt up its wings and create more drag for landing. The shape-shifting part of the wings provides an adequate amount of lifting force maintaining stable flight control. These complex wing structures were created through a collaboration with BMT Defence Services after coming up with machine learning algorithms based on a flight controller inspired by birds.
For the first time, a UAV can perform a bird-style perched landing, and now, the team is in the throes of developing a method to accomplish this feat in a repeatable fashion.
Dr. Tom Richardson, who is a senior lecturer in Flight Mechanics at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol stated,
“The application of these new machine learning methods to nonlinear flight dynamics and control will allow us to create highly maneuverable and agile unmanned vehicles. I am really excited about the potential safety and operational performance benefits that these new methods offer.”
The UAV is part of an 18-month project for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s Autonomous Systems Underpinning Research program, and once it is refined, the astonishing unmanned system will be taken up by UK Armed Forces.