Variable-wing prototype points to the future of UAVs


June 5, 2011

Engineers at UC San Diego are mimicking the movement of bird wings to help improve the maneuverability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

Engineers at UC San Diego are mimicking the movement of bird wings to help improve the maneuverability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

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The role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has expanded rapidly in both military and civilian circles over the past decade and although most designs to date are miniature versions of conventional aircraft, we can expect to see much more radical examples emerge in the near future. In developing this next-generation of UAVs engineers are looking to go beyond the limitations of fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft and to do it, they are turning to nature's ultimate flying machines - birds. We've already seen seen flapping-wing micro-aircraft, robotic seagulls and even a design based on a pterodactyl. Engineers at UC San Diego are furthering this approach with research into variable-wing techniques that could result in a bird-like UAV capable of spot landing.

The ultimate goal of the UC researchers is to create a UAV that can both cruise efficiently like a fixed wing aircraft and land on a perch. To achieve this they are studying the wing morphing and flapping techniques used by birds.

"One of the key behaviors observed in the birds was their use of wing sweep for pitch control in both forward flight and stalled landing approaches," she UC graduate student Kim Wright. "Birds can move their wings in a myriad of ways, providing a level of aerodynamic control that is unmatched by UAVs."

A team led by Wight and mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Tom Bewley analyzed in the movement of birds like barn owls and hawks in slow motion to investigate how wing morphing and flapping can be used for spot landing.

The result is a a small remote controlled UAV made primarily from balsa wood, fiberglass and foam like a standard RC hobby plane. Carbon fiber was used for the wings and variable wing sweep was achieved by introducing carbon fiber tubing for the shoulder joint structure.

The researchers have tested the plane using computer modeling and report that this has validated the concept of using wing sweep for pitch control of the aircraft. The next step is to combine wing twist, flapping or other wing morphing approaches to achieve autonomous perching.

"Combining these aspects into a fully actuated, intelligent UAV would be the ultimate goal,' said Wright. "A small UAV that could maneuver and land like a bird would be a valuable tool for surveillance and search and rescue. This project has brought the aerospace community a small step closer to that goal."

About the Author
Noel McKeegan After a misspent youth at law school, Noel began to dabble in tech research, writing and things with wheels that go fast. This bus dropped him at the door of a freshly sprouted in 2002. He has been Gizmag's Editor-in-Chief since 2007. All articles by Noel McKeegan

Not sure I like where this is headed. We\'re putting the choice of 24/7 realtime surveillance and decisions about the life-or-death of anyone on the planet into the hands of whoever chooses to buy the offspring from this project.

I remember years back, just out of university, I applied for a defence rocket guidance programming job. Chatting to a girl at a party, she was mortified: I\'d be helping to kill people. I didn\'t take the job. Funny how tiny moments in life can so dramatically change directions.


Imagine this technology someday moving into the realm of personal light sport aircraft. What a thrill it would be to strap on some bionic wings with microprocessor and servo controlled surfaces that would allow a person to fly swoop and dive like a falcon. Why not? If only we could get battery power light enough...


Ornithopter have to be heavier per payload than conventional aircraft because of all the extra high stress points in the designs, so they will never be used for anything other than bird sized drones.


Christopher, You said -defense rocket guidance programming- which could be what now is called the Patriot missle. Key word here is -defense- not offense! I keep guns for defense, not offense. If I kept them for offense I would not have them very long! Lighten up a little buddy. You could have had a lucrative job that you really enjoyed instead of whatever your doing now!

Will, the tink
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