University of Florida engineers are working on the next generation of airborne drones that will dive between buildings to shoot surveillance photos, test for chemical or biological weapons, etc. The planes will be able to dive between buildings, zoom under overpasses, land on very tight spots and snoop up close in the windows, alleys, corners and other urban crevices of the tight neighborhoods that define many cities.
They have built small prototypes of drones capable of squeezing in and out of tight spots in cities, thanks to seagull-inspired wings that change shape dramatically during flight, transforming the planes’ stability and agility at the touch of a button on the operator’s remote control.
Motors can transform the wings from the down to the up position in flight in 12 seconds, fast enough to use in a city landscape.
The bird-like prototypes are strikingly maneuverable, capable, for example, of completing three, 360-degree rolls in one second. (An F-16 fighter jet can manage at least one roll per second, but three rolls would produce excessive gravity force, killing the pilot).
The engineers’ goal is to make the planes autonomous, or flyable without human pilots. That won’t be easy, but it would give the planes remarkable utility. “If the vehicle can search an area by itself, you have almost instantaneous response to what’s being threatened,” said Rick Lind, who heads the project.