Insects inspire world's smallest autonomous flapping drone

delfly explorer
© TUDelft, the Netherlands, Micro Air Vehicle Lab

New types of drones are popping up everyday. From tiny bee-like drones being developed in Harvard's labs to larger ones intended to deliver textbooks and Amazon products. Drones have even been a great tool in the fight against poaching and deforestation by keeping an eye on protected animals and land.

Until now, many tiny nature-inspired drones have remained in testing facilities and labs, particularly those that have tried to mimic an insect's flapping ability, but a dragonfly-inspired drone created by Dutch scientists at Delft Technical University, declared the smallest autonomous flapping drone in the world, could have some cool applications.

Phys.org reports, "Weighing just 20 grammes (less than an ounce), around the same as four sheets of printer paper, the robot dragonfly could be used in situations where much heavier quadcopters with spinning blades would be hazardous, such as flying over the audience to film a concert or sport event."

"It can for instance also be used to fly around and detect ripe fruit in greenhouses," developer Guido de Croon of Delft Technical University told AFP.

"Or imagine, for the first time there could be an autonomous flying fairy in a theme park."

The DelFly Explorer, as it's called, has a wingspan of 11 inches and features two tiny video cameras that replicate the 3-D vision of human eyes. An onboard computer uses the images to navigate the drone and avoid obstacles.

The flapping is really what makes this drone special. Most drones use rotor blades to fly, which makes them heavier. The remains lightweight and comparably small. Tiny insect drones, like Harvard's RoboBee, have yet to be able to fly without a tether for control and processing.

The DelFly has a lithium polymer battery that gives the robot nine minutes of flying. The team is working on extending battery life and sees a future where the drone could be sent into enclosed spaces for human rescue and other types of missions. But they admit that a world where tiny insect-sized drones fly around with us is still far off, probably decades away.

Tags: Biomimicry | Gadgets | Technology