A dandelion-inspired drone: how to translate natural flyer ability of passive hovering to enhance drone endurance

This proposal builds on our recent discoveries, published in Nature (https://edin.ac/385DnRY) that reveal how the dandelion fruit can fly unpowered for hundreds of kilometres. In contrast, similar-size manmade drones have an endurance of few minutes. This PhD project aims to develop a deeper understanding of how the dandelion exploits wind gusts to remain airborne and to translate our insights from biology into the design of a new family of centimetre-scale drones with a step-change increase in the flight range and endurance.
Description of the Project: 

In the next decade, distributed sensor network systems made of insect-scale flying sensors will enable a step change in monitoring natural disasters and remote areas. They will contribute to protecting the environment by providing data on the contamination of physical and biological systems and on the impact of human activities. To date, a key limitation of this technology is that small drones such as the robobee can remain airborne only for few tens of minutes.

By contrast, some natural flyers such as the dandelion fruit, travel unpowered for days and hundreds of kilometres. Recent work by Viola and Cummins, reveals that the dandelion adopts a highly porous wing to forms a new fluid vortex that has never been observed before, and to increase its aerodynamic efficiency by an order of magnitude. Furthermore, the dandelion’s unique shape enables to exploit wind gusts to re-gain altitude and remain airborne for days. This latter mechanism has never been studied, nor artificially replicated, and could lead to a ground-breaking discovery on how to sustain the unpowered flight of small manmade flyers.

Fundamental bio-inspired fluid mechanics research will be undertaken with high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics and will inform the design of a dandelion-inspired drone, the dandidrone. This will be the first unpowered insect-scale flyer capable to sustain hover in wind gusts.

Finally, the impact of this project will be maximised by engaging with key stakeholders and by paving the way to the development of a new class of distributed sensor network systems with unprecedented endurance.

Project number: 
First Supervisor: 
University of Edinburgh
Second Supervisor(s): 
First supervisor university: 
University of Edinburgh
Essential skills and knowledge: 
Undergraduate level background in fluid mechanics, typical of programmes in Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, Physics and Mathematics.
Desirable skills and knowledge: 
Advanced knowledge in fluid mechanics, including vortex dynamics and turbulence.

Cummins, C, Saele, M, Macence, A, Certini, D, Matropaolo, E, Viola, IM & Nakayama, N, 2018, ‘A separated vortex ring underlies the flight of the dandelion’, Nature, vol 562, pp. 414–418. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0604-2