A group of researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland have developed a drone that uses artificial feathers to increase its precision during flight. The feathers are made of fiberglass and covered in a durable nylon fabric, along with a lightweight carbon fiber shaft which the researchers say maximizes strength while reducing overall weight.

The team wanted to develop a bio-inspired drone that could meet various aerodynamic requirements. It had to be capable of flying between obstacles, making sharp turns and coping with strong winds. After observing birds in flight, the researchers had the idea of building an energy-efficient winged drone capable of changing its wingspan mid-flight, flying at high speed and moving through tight spaces.

“We were inspired by birds: they can radically transform the size and shape of their wings because they have an articulated skeleton that is controlled by muscles and covered in feathers that overlap when the wings are folded,” explained EPFL researcher Matteo di Luca.

In addition to providing strength and light weight, composites gave the researchers the design flexibility necessary to make an aerodynamic morphing mechanism.

“It is extremely difficult to find the right balance between aerodynamic efficiency and the weight of the device,” explained researcher Stefano Mintchev.

Dario Floreano, the head of the laboratory at EPFL that worked on the project, says the new drone could change the way people think about drone flight. EPFL says the feather-winged drone could prove to have an advantage over traditional drones due to its ability to adapt to wind conditions, particularly in low altitudes and in urban environments where winds change rapidly.

“With the foldable wings, we discovered that we didn’t need ailerons to help the drone turn. By changing the wingspan and surface area during flight, we could make it turn automatically,” he said.