A series of autonomous ultralight micro air vehicles, called DelFly, flap their wings like a fruit fly, and could serve many applications.

By definition, an ornithopter is any aircraft that lifts by flapping wings, mimicking the way birds fly.

Coming from the Greek “Ornithos” that means “bird” and “Pteron” for “wing”, the name ornithopter, however, extends to aircraft that copy the flight of insects.

The Micro Air Vehicle Lab (MAVLab) at the Delft University of Technology develops, micro air vehicles (MAV), or tiny flying robots inspired by insects.

MAVLab Engineers based their micro air vehicles, or ornithopters, on the fruit fly.

The DelFly I

The concept for MAVLab project DelFly goes back to 2005, when the first MAV was born, DelFly I.

With its 50-cm wingspan, DelFly I was more like a big bird than an insect, but still managed to be lightweight at 21 grams and flies while carrying a camera.

DelFly I was the first micro air vehicle with a camera, and the first of a long line of tiny winged robots.

The DelFly II

In 2007, the second member of the DelFly family followed, simply called DelFly II.

DelFly II was smaller, with a 28-cm wingspan than its predecessor and also lighter, weighing just 16 grams.

The new design also improves flight capabilities as DelFly II can fly both forward with 7 m/s speed and backward at a slower speed of 1 m/s.

Autonomy is another area where the DelFly I successor improves, being able to fly for 15 minutes.

The DelFly Micro

Soon after the DelFly II, in 2008, MAVLab engineers released DelFly Micro.

As you can infer from the name, DelFly Micro excels in the size area, with a wingspan of 10 cm, and an ultralight weight of just 3.07 grams.

DelFly Micro can flap its wings and stay in the air for just 3 minutes, but autonomy isn’t its focus.

In 2009, the Guinness Book of Records declared DelFly Micro as the Smallest camera plane”.

The DelFly Explorer

MAVLab scientists like their tiny robotic flappers, because they followed with yet another DelFly design in 2013.

Weighing just 20g, the DelFly Explorer is capable of flying autonomously by flapping its wings like a real insect, instead of relying on rotors.

DelFly Explorer doesn’t need any help once its on. It flies on its own, avoids obstacles, while transmittting images using a technology called stereo vision.

The DelFly Nimble

Now, researchers over at MAVLab have taken their quad-wing robotic flappers a step further.

DelFly Nimble is the latest iteration of the DelFly series.

The four wings of the DelFly Nimble are independently actuated, allowing it to be super agile at hovering and flying in any direction: forward/backward, up/down, or sideways.

Unlike the previous versions, DelFly Nimble has no tail that usually carries control surfaces that enable engineers to monitor the flight, instead, “it is controlled through insect-inspired adjustments of motion of its two pairs of flapping wings. The lack of the tail makes the DelFly Nimble less vulnerable to damage and highly agile, allowing also outdoors operation in light winds.”

Micro Air Vehicle Uses

MAVLab says its wing-flapping tiny robots are “ready for many real-world tasks”, which is not very specific.

Flying robots like DelFly allow experts to understand the flight dynamics of insects, and that’s a good start.

Micro air vehicles (MAVs) can do a lot more than just catering to the three Ds ─Dull, Dirty, Dangerous─ uses that come to mind when drones in general and MAVs in particular are brought up.

MAVs applications can be more functional. For example, MAVs can accomplish various inspection tasks.

Because they’re small, autonomous, and agile at flying, MAVs like DelFly can be sent into enclosed inaccessible places, like greenhouses. Or dangerous places, like mines, or in between the rubble to look for trapped victims after an earthquake.

And because MAVs can live-stream in real time while flying, the applications here are the same as drones, albeit MAVs can go where bigger drones can’t.

What specific tasks do you think only micro air vehicles can perform?

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