Insect-Size Drones, Coming to a Spy Mission Near You
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because bio-inspired design might make technology much more efficient.
By Tom Cassauwers
Imagine yourself in a war zone — perhaps you’re hiding in a forest, or taking cover in a ruined building. Suddenly you hear flapping wings and a buzzing sound that’s getting closer. Today, it’s probably just an insect. But in the future, it might mean you have just been detected.
Unmanned drones have been around for quite some time. For most of that time, they have looked and worked like traditional aircraft and helicopters, but that may be about to change. Animal Dynamics, a British startup spinoff from Oxford University, produces biologically inspired vehicles and drones — including the dragonfly-inspired “Skeeter,” a drone the size of a pen intended for military reconnaissance.
The brain behind this bug look-alike is a former British paragliding champion named Adrian Thomas. “I’m a bit competitive,” says the 56-year-old Oxford professor, laughing. “And I have always been obsessed with flight. So I guess that explains many of the things I did in my life.”
The way to really understand how a bird or insect flies is to build a vehicle using the same principles.
Thomas, the co-founder and chief science officer of Animal Dynamics, studies biomechanics — how animals fly and move. Conversations with him veer just as unpredictably, from albatross wings and his sporting achievements to how the shape of fish fins could allow us to make ships more efficient. At a party in 2013, Thomas and Alex Caccia started chatting about the fish fins and ships question, leading them to launch Animal Dynamics. “I know about business, finance and how to grow a company,” says Caccia, a veteran tech entrepreneur who’s now the company’s CEO, “while Thomas is fundamentally a true scientist.”
For all the fish references, Thomas’ real passion is flying. He made model planes as a child, was a glider pilot early in life, did his dissertation on the tails of birds and was Britain’s paragliding champion in 2006 and 2009. “The first time I won, I designed the wing based on albatross airfoils,” he says. “That wing had fantastic performance, but it wasn’t the most user-friendly.” His obsession eventually led him to go into business. “The way to really understand how a bird or insect flies is to build a vehicle using the same principles,” he says. “And that’s what we set up Animal Dynamics to do.”
The company’s 44 employees, $8 million in venture capital and contracts with the British Ministry of Defense signal the increasing attention on bio-inspired design. Animals have been molded by millennia of evolution to become as efficient as possible, an urgent mission for the nonorganic world in an era of climate change. “Natural systems are always designed for efficiency. And we’re only scratching the surface of what this could mean for designing more efficient systems,” Thomas says.
Today, Animal Dynamics has three projects underway. The Skeeter is an insectlike autonomous drone for military reconnaissance. The Stork is the most advanced model, a paraglider-like drone that can efficiently glide into military resupply drops. The Malolo is a waterborne craft that propels itself with a finlike device instead of a propeller.
Skeeter is in its research and development phase, and early tests have begun. Stork is much further along, and Animal Dynamics expects to deploy it in the field by 2020. Both designs profit from their animal-like design. “Small drones often have problems maneuvering in heavy wind,” Thomas says. “Yet dragonflies don’t have this problem. So we used flapping wings to replicate this effect in our Skeeter. Stork, on the other hand, is built for efficiency. It can deliver packages at a very low cost for the weight.”
You could argue it’s morally questionable to put these Black Mirror-esque designs in military hands. Who wants weaponized insect drones flying around? “Our company charter says that we cannot make weapons,” Thomas responds. “Our drones are designed for reconnaissance and logistics. We can never make them ‘kinetic’ and put weapons on them.”
So why, then, do they work for the military? “We essentially use them as beta testers,” Thomas says. “They thoroughly test our designs and fund our early research. But in the future, we assume they’re only going to be a small section of our customers. The Stork, for example, will mainly be used for civilian logistics and humanitarian aid. E-commerce is also promising, but the regulatory framework there isn’t entirely clear yet.” The robot version of swords to plowshares, if you will.
Thomas says he and the company are in favor of regulating autonomous weapons at an international level. He was a bit creeped out when he saw autonomous tanks performing military exercises where Animal Dynamics was testing its prototypes, despite assurances of human oversight.
There’s also the question of whether insect drones are as feasible as Animal Dynamics claims. Previous startups that proposed them, like TechJect Inc. and its Dragonfly drone, failed. “The time is here for these technologies,” contends Guido de Croon from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, where he is part of a department experimenting with insect drones. “But it’s still not easy, since flapping-wing flight is still much less mature than fixed-wing or rotorcraft flight.” De Croon projects it will be 10 to 15 years before the technology matures.
Thomas is more optimistic. “The design is very challenging and subtle,” he says. “But we have cracked the issues with lift generation and gust tolerance, and Skeeter flies outside nicely. We are currently working to increase the flight time, and increase its robustness and operating lifetime.”
There are plenty of peaceful uses. Skeeter-like designs could scour collapsed buildings after earthquakes and monitor farms in beelike fashion. Yet they could also chase people through battlefields. Keep an ear out.
Read more: Can the U.S. Navy brave the waves of autonomous warfare?
- Tom Cassauwers, OZY Author Contact Tom Cassauwers