Researchers in the Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVLab) at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands, have been working on a nimble robot that rivals the flight capabilities of real-life insects.

Known as the DelFly Nimble, the robot flaps its wings at a rate of 17 times per second. This motion generates lift and helps maintain flight control. 

"The robot has a top speed of 25 km/h and can even perform aggressive maneuvers, such as 360-degree flips, resembling loops, and barrel rolls,” says Matěj Karásek, the first author of the study and main designer of the robot, in a press release. “Moreover, the 33-cm wingspan and 29-gram robot has, for its size, excellent power efficiency, allowing 5 minutes of hovering flight or more than a 1-km flight range on a fully charged battery."

According to the MAVLab TU Delft video featured below, two more features are added to DelFly Nimble's wheelhouse.

  • Angular acceleration of 5000° s-2
  • Turn rate of 500° s-1

Inspired by the fruit fly, the wing actuation enables forward and backward, left and right, and axis rotation. Despite being 55 times larger than its insect counterpart, its movements have stark similarities to the real deal.

“In contrast to animal experiments, we were in full control of what was happening in the robot's ‘brain.’ This allowed us to identify and describe a new passive aerodynamic mechanism that assists the flies, but possibly also other flying animals, in steering their direction throughout these rapid banked turns,” says Karásek.

Building on MAVLab’s 10-year history developing the DelFly project, the team has gone through many design iterations. For example, their DelFly II was “not agile enough,” while others “required an overly complex manufacturing process.”

However, the DelFly Nimble featured in the newest study “builds on established manufacturing methods, uses off-the-shelf components, and its flight endurance is long enough to be of interest for real-world applications,” according to TU Delft.

The team believes DelFly Nimble can help further our understand of animal flight, as well as aid in flight-based missions. For now, the robot will continue improving under the NWO-funded project “As nimble as a bee,” which is a TU Delft and Wageningen University collaboration.

The full research details are available in the report, “A tailless aerial robotic flapper reveals that flies use torque coupling in rapid banked turns,” published in Science.

Click play to watch the DelFly Nimble zip around with ease.