The vast majority of drones are rotary-wing systems (like quadrotors), and for good reason: They’re cheap, they’re easy, they scale up and down well, and we’re getting quite good at controlling them, even in very challenging environments. For most applications, though, drones lose out to birds and their flapping wings in almost every way—flapping wings are very efficient, enable astonishing agility, and are much safer, able to make compliant contact with surfaces rather than shredding them like a rotor system does. But flapping wing have their challenges too: Making flapping-wing robots is so much more difficult than just duct taping spinning motors to a frame that, with a few exceptions, we haven’t seen nearly as much improvement as we have in more conventional drones.
In Science Robotics last week, a group of roboticists from Singapore, Australia, China, and Taiwan described a new design for a flapping-wing robot that offers enough thrust and control authority to make stable transitions between aggressive flight modes—like flipping and diving—while also being able to efficiently glide and gently land. While still more complex than a quadrotor in both hardware and software, this ornithopter’s advantages might make it worthwhile.