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Hummingbird Drones Could Revolutionize Search-and-Rescue Missions

Researchers from Purdue University have built a flying robot with the capability of mimicking and learning the behavior of hummingbirds. Not only that, but it also has the ability to enable tracking of locations by touching surfaces, which could help people make a map of the area.

"The robot can essentially create a map without seeing its surroundings. This could be helpful in a situation when the robot might be searching for victims in a dark place—and it means one less sensor to add when we do give the robot the ability to see," said Xinyan Deng, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue.

The success of this research would make it easier to create drones with an expanded scope of reaching different locations. Initially, the problem that researchers encountered was the physics of making a small robot that could generate enough lift to support its weight.

But hummingbirds don't use conventional aerodynamics—and their wings are resilient. "The physics is simply different; the aerodynamics is inherently unsteady, with high angles of attack and high lift. This makes it possible for smaller, flying animals to exist, and also possible for us to scale down flapping wing robots," Deng said.

In order to produce the hummingbird drone, Deng and her team observed how hummingbirds flew and the different maneuvers or techniques it used when flying. They then translated this into a computer algorithm and built a robot with machine learning to enable it to learn to fly like a hummingbird.

Further research on insects and other smaller flying organisms can help change the way we conduct search and rescue missions but there is also a caveat of this technology being used for covert operations, which may or may not be to the benefit of the public.

Still though, it opens up more avenues for scientists to study hummingbirds in their natural environment and allows us to push the boundaries of what technology can do.

(Image credit: Jared Pike/Purdue University)

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