HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Drones have come a long way in the past several years. From large, cumbersome and expensive, you can now spend as little or as much as you want and get something that will perform stunts or tote a camera. The future looks even more fantastic.
"In five, maybe 10 years, I believe we can build mechanical butterflies that can fly like a butterfly," said Chang-kwon Kang, an Associate Professor in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at UAH.
Professor Kang is talking about something mechanical that would fly like a Monarch butterfly, which is known for its ability to migrate hundreds even thousands of miles. Engineering Doctoral candidates and their professors spent the last three years working on a National Science Foundation project to document how Monarch's achieve their power and their ability to travel so far.
"The body follows an undulating trajectory," said Madhu Sridner, a PhD. candidate at UAH.
Tracking the Monarch butterflies required attaching very small pieces of reflective tape to the butterfly's wings. Cameras emitting infrared light would record the light that reflected from the wings, and that's how the engineers were able to capture the mechanics of the Monarch's undulating motion.
"It suggests that a butterfly that follows an undulating body type of motion requires less power when compared to a straight trajectory," said Sridner.
Remember, the Monarch butterfly uses that undulating motion for long distance travel. The engineers involved in the project believe that maybe a future small mechanical drone would utilize the same motion.
"Flying thousands of kilometers and perform agile maneuvers like insects," said Prof. Kang.
Considering what the project to study the butterfly flight has discovered and it's possible uses, the research seems like a very good idea.
"My children are like that's really cool. Others are like, we're paying for people to study butterflies. But it really has practical applications on the earth and even things like flying on Mars," said Associate Professor Brian Landrum.
That's right -- a drone with flapping wings like a butterfly and the ability to use the thin atmosphere of Mars may be the best way to fly over the planet's surface. There is also the military application with small stealth drones performing all sorts of tasks.
There is one more idea to consider. In an age when there's so much pressure on pollinating insects, there's another job for a tiny drone.
"We can build hundreds of thousands of these artificial butterflies and they can become artificial pollinators that can help mankind," said Kang.
The engineers in this project say what they discovered can be utilized by other groups working to build small drones. The finished product would be years away, not decades.