February 01, 2017      

If you’re all droned out and think you’ve seen just about every robot in the skies, look again. Scientists have built Bat Bot, a robot bat that can fly around autonomously while beating its skin-like wings.

Bats are renowned for their aerial acrobatics, taking advantage of over 40 wing joints for maneuverability.

Aside from shedding light on the mechanics of bat flight, Bat Bot is an attempt to reproduce those aerial skills so that next-generation flying robots can be more maneuverable when used in everything from rescue operations and infrastructure monitoring to construction site surveys.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robots that mimic bat flight are desirable because of their energy efficiency and safety. Researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign have made progress with light wing articulation.
  • Bat Bot is a prototype of a non-fixed-wing winged drone that could be useful for precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection, surveillance, and emergency response.
  • The global market for unmanned aerial vehicles is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 19.99 percent to $21.23 billion by 2022, according to Markets and Markets, and at 16.9 percent, according to Grand View Research.

Bat Bot, also known as B2 or RoboBat, recreates the most important wing joints in bats to achieve six degrees of freedom for flight motions. It’s launched by hand, and it can fly straight for up to 30 meters, turn, and dive sharply like a real bat chasing prey.

Bat Bot copies the animal's design for drone flight.

Bat Bot’s thin wings are energy-efficient.

The biomimetic robot is about as big as an Egyptian fruit bat. It has an onboard computer, sensors such as an inertial measurement unit, and magnetic encoders on its elbows, hip joints, and shoulder joints.

The machine is powered by a battery-driven motor and micro-actuators but weighs only 93 grams. That’s due in large part to its lightweight wings. Made from a single, silicon-based flexible membrane, the wings measure 47 cm across and are only 56 microns thick.

If flying robots feature such soft materials, they would be safer than drones for nearby humans, the scientists argued in a study about Bat Bot that was published in Science Robotics.

Bat Bot is the ‘holy grail’ of drones

“Bat flight is the holy grail of aerial robotics,” co-author Soon-Jo Chung, an associate professor of aerospace at Caltech, said in a recent conference call with reporters. “We have challenged ourselves to reverse-engineer bats’ unrivaled agility with an aim to build a safe, energy efficient, soft-winged robot that can fly like a bat. I also wanted to challenge the status quo of drones that predominately use high-speed rotor blades, which are quite noisy and dangerous.”

The market for fixed-wing drones has been overshadowed by quadcopters, and even makers of the latter have shifted from consumer to commercial use.

The researchers argued that the wing design makes the Bat Bot more energy-efficient than rigid-wing platforms because the soft wings can capture air on a downstroke and then expel it, giving the machine extra lift and flight time.

They also hope to give Bat Bot the ability to perch, either right-side up or upside down on high structures, which would allow it to conserve energy for longer operations.

More on Drones and Robotics:

Winged UAV use cases

Study co-author Seth Hutchinson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that similar aerial robots could be equipped with radiation detectors and 3D cameras to survey sites like Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Winged drones could also be dispatched to bring medicine or to monitor elderly people living in multi-level homes that present navigation challenges for traditional ground-based machines. Other researchers are working to copy winged insect flight.

Bat Bot is currently confined to flying in a large room at the University of Illinois that’s equipped with a floor net to cushion its landings and protect its electronics.

“We think we can demonstrate a wide range of capabilities and skills for agile and safe robots,” Hutchinson said. “They can minimize the exposure of human workers to safety hazards that would enhance their efficiency and decision-making capabilities and prevent them from wandering into areas that might be dangerous at any time.”