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Military planes will be shrunk to the size of a bee, and could even fly with flapping wings, thanks to a new programme of research at Bath University.

The university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering will study the flight of insects and birds in a series of five research projects over the next two years to find ways to extend the range and improve manoeuvrability of micro-planes, borrowing from techniques that have evolved over millions of years.

The goal of the researchers is to develop mini-planes weighing about 50 grams and capable of staying aloft for up to an hour and flying a few miles.

One of the main challenges the researchers face is the vulnerability of small craft to high winds. Current unmanned miniature craft are too large to carry out the kind of fine manoeuvres the project’s backers need; and, because of their larger power requirement, their range is still too short to be really effective in the field.

In a flap

One approach the researchers are working on is to get the micro air vehicles to flap their wings in a similar way to insects such as bees, flies or birds. Considering that until relatively recently there was no explanation for the flight of the humble bumblebee, this research will greatly expand our understanding of small-scale aerodynamics.

According to Dr Ismet Gursul, the Head of the department’s Aerospace Subgroup, the main problems the researchers will tackle are poor lift, inefficient propulsion and unsteady aerodynamics.

"We are looking for the most efficient way of flying, and the rapid flapping of a flexible wing is one of these, and in this respect we are imitating nature and the flight of insects and birds." he said.

The teams will also investigate the possibility of using micro jet engines which send out small puffs of air, pushing the aeroplane forward.

The research is backed by BAE SYSTEMS and the Ministry of Defence. The US Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) has also provided funding.

The micro-planes will be up to six inches long [That is a bee I don’t want to meet – Ed] and will be equipped with sensors and cameras. They are to be designed for use in a variety of military missions such as reconnaissance and surveillance, targeting and bio-chemical sensing.

The aircraft could also make non-military tasks easier, such as traffic monitoring, border surveillance, fire and rescue operations, wildlife surveys, aerial photography, monitoring of seismic activity and hazardous substance detection. ®

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