Apparently, mosquitoes have a special skill that allows them to fly in the dark without hitting objects. Researchers have discovered how these pesky creatures navigate the world around them and used that knowledge to build an advanced sensor that could keep helicopters and drones safe, one day.
The researchers focused on an exclusive organ that only mosquitoes and a select few insects have. This organ is shaped like an upside-down umbrella and contains about 12,000 cells neatly arranged in a circular pattern near the base of each antenna. Together, these antennas can detect the tiniest of movements.
The mosquito of interest is the Culex quinquefasciatus, a mosquito responsible for transmitting the lethal West Nile and Zika viruses, they observed its aerodynamic movements at varying distances from the ground and near-wall flights.
The researchers analyzed thousands of detailed images to learn more about the movement of air and how the insect’s long and slender wings interact with it to influence airglow changes. This ‘flow field’’ generated by the flying mosquito creates a downward draft. The draft gets disrupted as the insects come closer to the surface. When the air bounces back from the surface it gets detected by the movement of the mosquito’s own wings, warning it of a potential collision.
The team tapped into the aerodynamic imaging by mosquitoes to create a sensor that can detect nearby objects. They also mounted indicator lights on the drone that flare up when the sensor approaches a surface. The result is that the mosquito-inspired drone was able to detect surfaces on its own when vision was not available.
The sensor is extremely lightweight and energy-efficient, weighing in at about 9.2 grams only. This technology can one day be used to help drones and other flying aircraft when making deliveries or conducting inspections of towers and bridges. Moreover, the team believes this technology could be deployed on helicopters in the near future.
Other Examples of Biomimetic Drones
Drone technology sees primary use in military organizations and by tech-hobbyists. However, the use of this technology goes well beyond just these markets. The rising effectiveness of drones means that many of the most dangerous professions are ripe for disruption by biomimetic technology.
The use cases for safe, cost-effective solutions range from delivery to surveillance rescue efforts. And as demonstrated above, a drone’s autonomous and collision detection abilities are improving, so too will their ability to perform increasingly complex tasks.
The market for drones offering business services is valued at over $127 billion, according to researchers at PwC. This means that corporations are now looking to capitalize on the commercial opportunities, attracting investments into the drone space.
The mosquito-inspired drone is just one example of biomimetic drone technology, also known as biomimicry. Research teams around the world are developing many more models taking after insects and other avian species. For example, one team of engineers recently invented a drone mimicking the flight of bats and their aerodynamic efficiency. The “Bat Bot” weighs in at merely 93 grams and uses silicone membrane wings, which give it a greater degree of movement.
Researchers at Purdue University are developing another type of drone, spearheaded by Xinyan Deng, who has used inspiration from the flight of hummingbirds. The drone is printed in 3D and is no bigger than an actual hummingbird. Thanks to the innovative design of the wings, which vibrate at breakneck speeds, this device can perform various kinds of movements, and almost instantly make 180-degree maneuvers.
Speaking of drones worth mentioning is the RoboBee, developed by engineers at Harvard University. This device weighs in at 90 grams and uses tiny wings to fly with extremely high energy efficiency. The drone demonstrates engineers’ ability to manufacture drones on a sub-millimeter scale with precision and efficiency.
In order to achieve flight, the drone can beat its wings 120 times per second. Moreover, at a wingspan of only 3 centimeters, the RoboBee is purported to be the smallest man-made device modeled after an insect.
The eventual goal of the RoboBee project is to create several drones that can fly in synchronity. This tool has various applications including search and rescue, artificial pollination, and surveillance.
Areas Where Mosquito-Inspired Drones Can Make a Difference
Below, we’ll take a look at the various range of industries that plan on harnessing drone technology for commercial purposes.
Military drones have been used for decades now because it greatly expands their infiltration and tactical capabilities. The market for military drones will increase more so in the years to come because smaller, more portable drones are becoming available.
Military spending on drone technology is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. This opens up a commercial space for specialized drone manufacturers and software developers. In fact, since 2014, the US military has increased its spending on drone technology from $4 billion to just over $9 billion annually.
Mosquito-inspired drones can also prove to be useful in times of natural disaster. UAVs can be used to locate victims, assess damages, and even deliver aid in the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes. In certain situations, they can be used to completely avoid disasters.
These drones can be equipped with thermal imaging cameras that can detect dangerous levels of forest temperatures. This enables teams to identify patches of forest that are most vulnerable to forest fires or spot fires only moments after they start.
The technology for such an application is still growing though. Mosquito-inspired drones will definitely help speed up the process.
Mosquito-inspired drones can be used to track animals that spread certain kinds of diseases. These drones can follow animals and provide further insight into the movement of infectious diseases. Microsoft is already leveraging drone technology to capture and test mosquitos for infectious diseases. The data generated could be used to protect local residents, and prevent epidemics before they even begin.
The role of drones in making deliveries is growing. This is important because certain circumstances call for quick access to medical supplies – a need that mosquito-inspired drones could fulfill.
Examples of businesses that are using delivery drones to transport medicine include Zipline International, which raised over $237 million in funding and delivers drones throughout Africa. Another startup that plans on using UAVs to deliver medicine in rural areas is Flirtey.
Wrapping Up – The Rise of Insect Drones
Tomorrow’s drones are becoming more insect-like as humans draw inspiration from nature in the creation of new technologies. The market for mosquito-inspired drones is ripe for the taking and can play a fundamental role in advancing the interests of humanity.