Bird sized airplane could revolutionize intelligence-gathering efforts

Look up in the sky - it's a bird, it's a plane it's...both? Researchers today introduced a very cool micro-aircraft shaped like the swift - one of nature's most efficient flyers.

The RoboSwift can sweep its wings back and forth, changing the shape and the wing's surface area. The idea is to make the aircraft fly more efficiently than fixed-wing aircraft.

The micro-airplane is powered by a special propeller that folds during gliding to minimize air drag. RoboSwift steers by sweeping back one wing more than the other. The difference in wing position lets RoboSwift make very sharp turns.

Resembling the common swift, RoboSwift will be able to go undetected while using its three micro cameras to perform surveillance on vehicles and people on the ground.

For example, the airplane could slip in unnoticed among a flock of real birds and provide unique access for their flight and migration actions.

While its creators don't list a military application for the RoboSwift you could easily see the Pentagon knocking on their door for a look-see.

In fact the US Army has been looking at such aircraft to be used in a variety of applications, such as surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering.

In fact the Dutch Aerospace Engineering students at the Delft University of Technology, together with the Department of Experimental Zoology of Wageningen University, designed the RoboSwift also designed the DeFly - a micro-aircraft that used flapping wings to hover motionless in one spot.

DARPA has a program that also promotes the development of these Micro Aerial Vehicles.

Such unmanned aircraft were in the news this week as the first unmanned attack squadron in aviation history will arrive in Iraq today looking to deliver 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles to the enemyRoboSwift, which is expected to fly in January 2008, will have a span of almost 2-foot span and weight less than a pound.

The RoboSwift can fly one hour with its lithium-polymer batteries that power the electromotor, which drives the propeller. The propeller folds back during gliding to minimize air drag. The unique morphing-wing design features are taken from the swift. Morphing means the wings can be swept back in flight by folding feathers over each other, thus changing the wing shape and reducing the wing surface area, researchers said.

RoboSwift also steers by morphing its wings. Doing so, the micro airplane can perform optimally, flying efficiently and highly maneuverable at very high and very low speeds, just like the swift.

The students found out that using only four feathers, much less than the bird uses, already provides the wing with sufficient morphing capacity; this feature makes actual production of the design feasible. Steering RoboSwift is done by asymmetrically morphing the wings.

The team based the RoboSwift on research performed by David Lentink, who published a study into the swift's flight characteristics in this year's April issue of Nature.

During its life, a common swift flies a distance that goes up to five times the distance to the Moon and back. Lentink said the swift is such an able flyer because it continuously morphs its wings to the prevailing flight conditions to fly more efficient and more maneuverable.

Military aircraft, such as the F-14 Tomcat and the English-German Tornado, utilize swing wings but don't come close to the morphing feature seen on the RoboSwift, the researchers said in a statement.

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