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Batcopter flies to reveal secrets of swarming

Thursday, December 29, 2011 - 02:58

Dec. 29 - A research team at Boston University has designed an aerial vehicle to study how bats fly together but never collide. The ''Batcopter'', launched in Texas, is helping the team study swarming bat trajectories, the data from which will allow engineers to develop smarter unmanned flight control systems. Sharon Reich reports.

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It's called a bat-copter, invented by scientists at Boston UIniversity. It's designed to fly alongside swarms of bats and record their every move. In the desert of southern Texas, thousands of Brazilian free tailed bats swarm from their caves to feed each night. They dart and dive at great speed to catch insects them - but remarkably the scientists say, they never collide. By using the bat-copter to closely observe the bats' random yet apparently coordinated flight patterns, the team, led by Dr. John Ballieul (B-AL-YUL) believe they can design mechanical unmanned flight systems that mimic the bat. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. JOHN BALLIEUL, PROFESSOR OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "Getting some understanding of how they're positioned relative to one another and how they may change within the formation as they fly is an open question in biology and it's also very interesting for people who are trying to engineer flight systems for swarms of unmanned vehicles." Building a quadcopter that could get off the ground while carrying a payload wasn't easy, but the final version - made of simple materials, like carbon-fiber rods, packing foam and zip ties - has proven successful. The vehicle is equipped with a remote-controlled, 3-D camera to record the bats in flight. A protective netting on the outside keeps the flying mammals away from the propellers. Biology student Nate Fuller helped launch the Batcopter during trials in Texas. He says there are many flying creatures from which researchers can learn, but the bat, with its precise maneuvering capabilities, is unique. (SOUNDBITE) (English) Ph.D. CANDIDATE NATE FULLER SAYING: "You see them flutter around and kind of dive as they are going after insects. It's not that they are poor flyers, it's that they have very lot of control over what they're doing. so they are making a lot of adjustments and chasing down prey in 3-dimensional space." And that's what is most intriguing to the engineers. They want to develop unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly as a group and mirror the bat's ability to anticipate and avoid collisions with each other. Such machines could be used to monitor air quality after nuclear accidents. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. JOHN BALLIEUL, PROFESSOR OF MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AT BOSTON UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "What we're hoping to understand is how you can go from a situation where you've got many people assigned to flying one vehicle to a situation where one person can fly multiple vehicles. The challenge with doing that is that the vehicles have to have a lot of autonomy themselves and they have to be able to position themselves without moment to moment input from operators." For now, the team are still examining bat trajectories and collecting other data but, but with the Batcopter, they say they're getting closer to unraveling the science behind the bats' aerial aptitude. Sharon Reich, Reuters

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Batcopter flies to reveal secrets of swarming

Thursday, December 29, 2011 - 02:58