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EPFL unveils a raptor-inspired drone with morphing wing and tail

NCCR Robotics researchers at EPFL have developed a drone with a feathered wing and tail that give it unprecedented flight agility.

EPFL's Northern Goshawk Drone
The advantage of winged drones over quadrotor designs is that they have a longer flight time for the same weight. | Copyright EPFL / Alain Herzog

The northern goshawk is a fast, powerful raptor that flies effortlessly through forests. This bird was the design inspiration for the next-generation drone developed by scientists of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems of EPFL, based in Lausanne in the canton of Vaud and led by Prof. Dario Floreano.

“Goshawks move their wings and tails in tandem to carry out the desired motion, whether it is rapid changes of direction when hunting in forests, fast flight when chasing prey in the open terrain, or when efficiently gliding to save energy,” says Enrico Ajanic, the first author and PhD student in Floreano’s lab.

The shape of the bird’s wings and tail and its flight behavior have been carefully studied, and that information used to develop a drone with similar characteristics.

“It was fairly complicated to design and build these mechanisms, but we were able to improve the wing so that it behaves more like that of a goshawk (…) Now that the drone includes a feathered tail that morphs in synergy with the wing, it delivers unparalleled agility,” explains Ajanic.

Opportunities for artificial intelligence

The drone changes the shape of its wing and tail to change direction faster, fly slower without falling to the ground, and reduce air resistance when flying fast. It uses a propeller for forward thrust instead of flapping wings because it is more efficient and makes the new wing and tail system applicable to other winged drones and airplanes.

However, flying this new type of drone isn’t easy, due to the large number of wing and tail configurations possible. To take full advantage of the drone’s flight capabilities, Floreano’s team plans to incorporate artificial intelligence into the drone’s flight system so that it can fly semi-automatically.

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