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A new Batplane? Bat flight inspires micro air vehicles.

Analysis of bats has helped scientists design innovative new wings for micro air vehicles. The wings are the latest in a growing trend of biomimicry, the process of adopting elements of nature to solve human problems.

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    A caretaker releases a grey-headed flying fox bat in Centennial Park in Sydney, Australia Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014. Bat flight inspired the design of new MAVs.
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It might not fly at night or rely on echolocation, but the latest in drone technology is based on bats.

The Engineering and Physical Science Research Council announced on Thursday that it had designed a new type of micro air vehicle (MAV) that could fly longer distances and was more economical than previous MAVs. The secret to their success? Bat flight.

The wings of the new MAV are designed to act like the wings on a bat. They don't flap, but membrane wings change shape based on the forces acting against them, according to the press release. Scientists began studying bats after realizing the potential offered by the only mammals capable of true flight.

While the research project may be one of the first to study how bat flight can be optimized for drones, the innovative solution is the latest in a growing trend of biomimicry, the practice of imitating elements of nature to solve complex human problems.

“Living organisms can show us how to create our materials and our products, our buildings and our entire cities in ways to help us fit in with life on Earth,“ Erin Connelly, director of communications and outreach at the Biomimicry Institute, said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “There is really no limit for who can apply to their work and how... more and more scientists are looking to nature for inspiration.”

The potential of biomimicry has prompted research institutes around the world, including the Biomimicry Institute in Montana. The institute helps educate the public about the potential benefits from biomimicry and provides resources for researchers working in the area. The Biomimicry website highlights solutions found from natural sources in areas as diverse as energy, architecture, and communication, with a range of examples.

An office complex in Zimbabwe, called the Eastgate Building, utilizes an air conditioning system modeled after termite mounts, according to the Biomimicry Institute. The termite mounds are able to self-regulate temperatures inside their nest to a consistent temperature, within one degree, while temperatures outside the mound fluctuate between 108 and 37 degrees fahrenheit. The Christian Science Monitor has previously reported on other biomimicry solutions, like how scientists learned to prevent frost on airplanes by studying a Namib desert beetle.

Despite the potential solutions, incorporating biomimicry in existing research projects can be difficult.

“No one has tried to simulate the in-flight behavior of actuated bat-like wings before, so we had to go back to fundamentals,” Rafael Palacios, lead scientist of the bat wing portion of the research project, says in the press release. “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.

The team of scientists working on the MAV project incorporated the findings from Dr. Palacious’s tests into their aircraft model. The wings use electroactive polymers that respond to electricity changing the shape of the wings.

The team is able to control the wings by changing the voltage input. This allows the wing membrane and aerodynamic characteristics of the entire MAV to be altered mid-flight. The design was tested in extensively in wind tunnels and at a coastal location, according to the press release.

The next step will be for the team to apply the new innovative wings to more traditional MAV designs. The press release estimates real-world applications could be seen within the next five years.

“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 says in the press release.

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