Researchers Build More-Efficient Drone by Exploiting Updrafts

A team of researchers from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research program at RMIT have observed the flight patterns of birds to build the world’s first soaring drone that remains airborne using the updrafts found around buildings. The researchers discovered this concept while working to improve the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. They exploited updrafts to keep a drone airborne for five times longer than a drone driven with a propeller.

The UAS team has built a more efficient drone by exploiting updrafts, just like birds.

Simon Watkins, Professor of Engineering, stated that using updrafts was an energy efficient method to produce flight.

Birds use updrafts to try to gain altitude or to try and extend their flight range, and they do this as an energy saving method. Using atmospheric winds allows a drone to sustain longer periods of flight and could also enable on-board batteries to be recharged by harnessing wind energy through the propellers. If the wind stayed at the same strength, in the same direction, the drone we’ve developed could feasibly stay up forever.

Simon Watkins, Professor of Engineering, RMIT

Updrafts are warm air currents that rise into the cooler air above. Natural or man-made structures such as mountains, hills, or buildings push air upwards to form these updrafts.  However, Dr. Abdulghani Mohamed from the team feels that it is difficult to predict the location of updrafts in a city setting.

To address this challenge, we’ve conducted complex simulations to understand the air flow environment and identify soaring hotspots around buildings. The next stage in the research is to replicate the physical features of birds, to enhance the flight performance of UAV’s. We intend to adapt our feather-inspired turbulence system to sense and track updrafts, and apply the knowledge we have gained from our air flow simulations to further develop this technology.

Dr. Abdulghani Mohamed, RMIT

This research was performed in partnership with the Defense Science and Technology Organization. The research can be applied to several technological applications; from border patrol, disaster control, infrastructure inspection, and wildlife and coastline monitoring.

Mohamed explained that the new drone can now be used easily across remote areas in Australia, due to its improved efficiency.

Our long endurance micro-sized drones can be taught to detect intruding sharks or dangerous species on beaches, or monitor wildlife on coastal sites where winds are abundant.

Dr. Abdulghani Mohamed, RMIT

The RMIT research findings were published in the International Journal of Micro Air Vehicles, the Journal of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics and the International Journal of Wind Engineering and Industrial Aerodynamics. It was also presented at the 16th Australian International Aerospace Congress.

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