Mosquitoes may not come to mind as a loved species. Annoying bites at best and serious diseases such as malaria or Zika in others have condemned them to the purgatory of unwelcome insects. As irritating as they can be, however, they are fascinating creatures. One of their most fascinating abilities is the detection of obstacles, which they carry out even in the dark. To achieve this, they rely on a set of cells – more than twelve thousand of them – at the base of their antennas that react to the slightest change in air pressure. Thus, when they approach an obstacle such as a wall or the ground, the antenna vibrates differently depending on the airflow. A group of researchers has analyzed the way a mosquito, known to transmit Zika and the Nile virus, performs these complex maneuvers. They have recorded some of these specimens in action with high-precision cameras to obtain thousands of frames.
Once the team of researchers from the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Leeds (both in the United Kingdom), among other centers, found the key, they transferred their findings to the development of a sensor that they installed in a small drone. This innovative technology project consists of a series of lights that are activated upon detecting a nearby surface. It is a very light sensor, only 9.2 grams, and highly energy efficient. The researchers believe that in the future it could help drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages or inspect structures in dark conditions. And why not, in life-size helicopters.
The case of the mosquito-inspired drones is an example of biomimetics or biomimicry. And there are other models of drones that have sought inspiration in other insects and animals. For example, a team of researchers recently created a drone based on the wings of bats and their ability to take on various forms. The Bat Bot is a small device of only 93 grams that uses silicone membranes as wings, which multiplies the possible movements.
Another type of drone is the one developed at Purdue University by mechanical engineer Xinyan Deng, who has created a drone inspired by the hummingbird. Printed in 3D, this artificial hummingbird is the same size as the creature that inspired it. Thanks to the design of its wings, which beat at high speed, this model can carry out all kinds of movement, with almost instantaneous 180-degree turns.
It is also worth mentioning the drone inspired by bees, called RoboBee, which they have created at Harvard University. This device, weighing barely 90 grams, uses four wings to fly with excellent energy efficiency. The importance of these new approaches is to create flying machines with very low weight batteries, which allows them to operate in reduced spaces or in swarms.