The Batplane may soon be a reality, following the development of a new experimental drone based on the design of bat wings. New Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) utilize membranes on their wings to produce lift while reducing weight.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (Epsrc) researchers designed the drone with wings that alter their shape while in flight, in order to maximize efficiency. Electro-active polymers in the wings are exposed to electricity, which alters the shape of the wings while in flight in order to increase flight efficiency. This movement is similar to what takes place in human muscles.

Developers of the new bat-inspired drones believe their new design will allow the MAVs to travel greater distances, while using less energy. Because these wings do not contain moving parts, maintenance on the vehicles is expected to be reduced, compared with comparable models.

"No-one has tried to simulate the in-flight behavior of actuated bat-like wings before, so we had to go back to fundamentals, develop the mathematical models and build the multiphysics simulation software we needed from scratch. We had to make sure it could model not only the wings themselves but also the aerodynamic flows around them and the effect of the electric field generated across them," said Rafael Palacios of the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London.

The new drone wing was developed through a collaboration between European research facilities and the United States Air Force. The proof-of-concept wing design was incorporated into a MAV measuring roughly 20 inches across. 

The smallest MAVs currently in operation measure around six inches from side-to-side. Over the last several years, investigators have attempted to improve the efficiency of drones by utilizing behaviors, designs and materials found in the natural world. Bats are the only mammals in the world capable of carrying out true flight, making the animals a natural source of design inspiration.

"This is a paradigm shift in the approach to MAV design. Instead of a traditional approach of scaling down existing aircraft design methods, we constantly change the membrane shape under varying wind conditions to optimize its aerodynamic performance," Palacios said.

Now that the feasibility of using wings inspired by bats has been demonstrated, engineers will next attempt to use the new bat wing design in a typical MAV model.

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