RMIT researchers bring bird-like flight to unmanned drones


By Claire Reilly

According to lead researcher Dr Reece Clothier, birds soar and maintain lift by using updrafts of air flow generated around landmarks such as cliffs. The RMIT research team has partnered with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) to mimic this behaviour with a manmade object, developing a prototype unmanned aircraft that uses updrafts around buildings to stay airborne.

The team hopes to “develop the sensing and control systems” to bring bird-like flight to their small, fixed-wing aircraft, achieving a world-first in the process. By sensing wind in real time and tracking potential updrafts of positive airflow around buildings, the researchers hope to prove that “urban soaring” is feasible.

“Birds make soaring look easy, but when we try to mimic what they know by instinct, we realise just how far advanced nature is in its designs,” said Dr Clothier.

But it’s not just the ornithologists taking note of the research. The DSTO’s long-term goal is to develop drones that have perfected this “urban soaring” in order to minimise drone energy use, maximise endurance and avoid areas of high turbulence.

“DSTO undertakes research in a number of areas related to autonomous unmanned aircraft, and this is a great opportunity to engage with academia on a project with both scientific challenges and real-world outcomes,” said Dr Jennifer Palmer, a senior research scientist in the Aerospace Division of DSTO.

“Small aircraft used for communications relay or surveillance and reconnaissance could greatly benefit by having a means of exploiting naturally occurring updrafts and avoiding the deleterious effects of turbulence in urban environments.”

The development of the unmanned aircraft, which is still in the prototype stages, is part of a wider body of research being undertaken at RMIT. The University’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team is also looking into drone applications for fire fighting, search and rescue, and agriculture.