When compared with other animals, bats have the most elegant flight mechanisms. Bats are among the most precise flying creatures on the planet, even though their flight paths seem to be heedless. For many years, scientists have been fascinated with their ability to quickly change direction with great accuracy. However, it is extremely difficult to reconstruct the complex wing motions a bat uses to fly. Roboticists have found it unbelievably problematic to design a drone with the dexterity of a bat. But, it has been achieved as per a new paper published by Caltech professor and Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Soon-Jo Chung in the form of Bat Bot.
Engineers have been simulating the flight of birds and bugs with robotic counterparts for years. Therefore, the winged creatures are no new phenomenon to robotic aviation. But, restructuring the same flight abilities of a bat has eluded the engineers until now due to the intricacy of bats such as having 40 joints in their wings.
The first robotic bat has been created by the researchers at Caltech and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It flies with almost the same fidelity as a real bat. It features soft, articulated wings, capable of imitating the complex motions of a real bat. The new design simplifies the bat’s complex composition of 40 joints down to a reasonable nine.
Bat Bot has been built from carbon fiber bones and 3D-printed socket joints which weigh in at a mere ‘93 grams’. It’s incredibly thin silicon-based membrane stretches over a wingspan of nearly one-foot. Its complex wings are able to flex, extend, and twist at its shoulder, elbows, wrists, and legs.
Associate professor of aerospace and Bren Scholar in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech, and Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist (Caltech manages JPL for NASA), Soon-Jo Chung, said, “This robot design will help us build safer and more efficient flying robots, and also give us more insight into the way bats fly.”
The Bat Bot has the ability to individually move each wing while continually varying the wing’s shape which enables it to perform the complex maneuvers real bats are famous for. Moreover, it has an added benefit of optimizing its efficiency, speed, and dexterity while maintaining a quiet, low-profile design owing to its ability to manipulate its flying characteristics.
According to Ramezani, “Our work demonstrates one of the most advanced designs to date of a self-contained flapping-winged aerial robot with bat morphology that is able to perform autonomous flight.”
Flexible wing membrane is one of the most significant features of Bat Bot. As the traditional lightweight fabrics (like nylon and Mylar which are used on artificial flying devices) cannot be easily stretched, therefore, Caltech engineers resorted to a much stretchier counterpart in its place, which is a custom ultra-thin (56 microns), silicone-based membrane that simulates stretchable, thin bat wings.
The efficiency of existing flying robots can be considerably enhanced by means of the Bat Bot’s flexible wings. As soon as Bat Bot flaps its wings, its stretchable wings become inflated with air. When the wing reaches the lowest part on its downward flap, the membranes quickly snap back, releasing a blast of air. The increase of downward thrust generates a huge amplification of power.
The present-day design of the Bat Bot is not advanced enough to support long distance missions. While, the research team behind the project refines the robot, it could become an integral device to be used for close quarter, urban environments.