Swarm of bat-like flying robots could hunt for survivors or terrorists

Virginia Tech scientists study bats' flexibility, control to help in creation of micro flying bots

If one day a swarm of small flying robots are used to search for survivors after an earthquake, credit may go to a team of Virginia Tech scientists and their study of bats.

"There is a lot of interest in recent years in making mico air vehicles," said Danesh Tafti , a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, or Virginia Tech. "We look at flying creatures for inspiration. Bats are quite unusual. They've got a lot of flexibility and very accurate control. They can move their fingers and fine tune their flapping. I haven't seen any birds that can do that."

Tafti is one of a team of Virginia Tech scientists looking to model small robotic flying vehicles after bats. The research is still in its early stages, but he already has a vision of what these robots will be able to do.

The flying robots will be, well, bat sized. Tafti estimates that the first ones will measure about 8 to 12 inches long and weigh about 3.5 to 7 ounces.

He envisions them being used - either individually or in a swarm - for search and rescue efforts, as military tools or to hunt terrorists.

"It could have a lot of uses," Tafti told Computerworld. "Think of it being able to go into small spaces. They could fly alone or be let out in a swarm, communicating with each other and sharing information."

The researchers at Virginia Tech aren't the only scientists mimicking nature to develop advanced robotics.

Last September, Australian researchers disclosed that they are studying honeybees to help them develop tiny, flying robots that are agile and fuel-efficient.

"The bees are living proof that it's possible to engineer airborne vehicles that are agile, navigationally competent, weigh less than 100 milligrams, and can fly around the world using the energy given by an ounce of honey," Mandyam Srinivasan, a professor at the University of Queensland's Brain Institute, said last summer.

A few months before that, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University built a snake-like robot to crawl through and inspect pipes and other hard-to-reach parts of nuclear power plants.

And still other researchers have based their robotic designs on other creatures, building squishy, self-camouflaging robots that mimic squid or a swimming robot powered by a knifefish-type fin.

Tafti, who's been working with bats for two to three years now, said a lot of challenges remain for his team.

Such as: How to make the tiny robots autonomous? How to enable them to sense things around them? What processing power is needed?

It may be three to five years before the Virginia Tech team has a prototype that will fly off the table and around the room, he said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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