Mirko Kovac with one of Aerial Robotics Laboratory’s gliding drones.
A New Year double-bill of posts for you…
Mirko Kovac wants to create bio-inspired flying drones to do our dirty work for us.
As director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London, he has built micro-bots inspired by locusts, butterflies and grasshoppers to work in places that are inaccessible or dangerous, such as underwater oil pipelines or remote wind turbines.
“Drones perform better working together in a system than in isolation, and need a systems-level approach to their design,” says Kovac. His big idea: borrow from nature. “Nature has some of the same design requirements as us, like weight and energy use. Rather than blindly copying nature, we need to be inspired by it.”
By studying the principles behind a perching bird, Kovac has developed a drone the size of a pigeon that can perch by flying straight into the side of a building. The mechanical forces from the impact trigger its two arms to fly forward and make a snapping motion that grabs on to the brickwork without the expenditure of any additional energy.
Kovac’s next move is to adapt the principle of multi-modal mobility — the ability to move between water, land and sky.
He is currently working on building novel classes of robots that can effortlessly switch between swimming, walking and flying.
First prototypes of a propulsion unit for such multi-modal robots are between 4cm and 45cm in size and use highly pressurised CO2 to propel an equally sized drone into the air. A 70g vehicle reached speeds of 11mps in just under a third of a second, and preliminary work has shown that jumps propelled from under the water’s surface could have a range of up to 20m.
Sometimes, it’s the small things that change the world.