It’s no surprise to see birds take advantage of updrafts to glide effortlessly through the sky. Now thanks to world-first RMIT research, drones can follow their lead.
Researchers from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team have studied the natural flight patterns of birds to develop the first soaring drone that uses updrafts around buildings to stay airborne.
As part of ongoing research into unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs, the team worked out how to exploit upward moving volumes of air, or updrafts, to sustain a drone for five times longer than one driven solely by a propeller.
Professor of Engineering, Simon Watkins, said using updrafts was an energy efficient way to generate flight.
“Birds use updrafts to try to gain altitude or to try and extend their flight range and they do this as an energy saving method,” Watkins said.
“Using atmospheric winds allows a drone to sustain longer periods of flight and could also enable on-board batteries to be recharged by harnessing wind energy through the propellers.
“If the wind stayed at the same strength, in the same direction, the drone we’ve developed could feasibly stay up forever.”
Updrafts are currents of warm air that rise into the cooler air above. They form when air is being pushed upwards by natural or man-made features such as hills, mountains or buildings.
But predicting the location of updrafts can be difficult in an urban environment, according to the research team’s Dr Abdulghani Mohamed.
“To address this challenge, we’ve conducted complex simulations to understand the air flow environment and identify soaring hotspots around buildings,” Mohamed said.
“The next stage in the research is to replicate the physical features of birds, to enhance the flight performance of UAV’s.
“We intend to adapt our feather-inspired turbulence system to sense and track updrafts, and apply the knowledge we have gained from our air flow simulations to further develop this technology.”
The research is in collaboration with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, with applications for the technology ranging from disaster control, border patrol and infrastructure inspection to coastline and wildlife monitoring.
Because of its increased efficiency, the new drone could be more easily deployed across remote areas in Australia, Mohamed said.
“Our long endurance micro-sized drones can be taught to detect intruding sharks or dangerous species on beaches, or monitor wildlife on coastal sites where winds are abundant,” Mohamed said.
The RMIT research has been published in the International Journal of Micro Air Vehicles, the International Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics, the Journal of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics and was presented at the 16th Australian International Aerospace Congress.
Story: Sean O’Malley
Video: Peter Clarke