The Robo Raven III is the “first flapping wing micro air vehicle that flies with solar cells,” according to University of Maryland mechanical engineering professor Satyandra Gupta. In other words: It looks like a bird, flies like a bird, but its power comes from the sun.
The idea of solar-powered air travel isn’t as crazy as it used to be. We’ve covered the Solar Impulse, this solar airship, and this solar helicopter. What distinguishes the Robo Raven is its biomimicry design–it really does look like a bird–and its maneuverability. The vehicle can make much sharper turns than a conventional mini-aircraft. Take a look at the video here:
Gupta and his team have been working on a “flapping-wing platform” since 2005, but they only recently added the solar cells, figuring that any bird worthy of the name would need to be able to “feed itself” on long missions. At the moment, the Raven can fly only for about five minutes on a single charge. But Gupta hopes that more and better solar cells (and better motors) could increase its air time.
Eventually, he hopes to develop a full alternative to other small autonomous aircraft. The Raven could be used for remote monitoring, so that farmers could, for example, use it to inspect their fields for long periods of time.
Birds are quieter and more energy efficient than helicopters, and more maneuverable than planes, Gupta points out.
“We are doing this as fundamental research, to develop a new modality of flight,” he says. “Conventionally, people use rotor craft such as helicopters, or they use fixed wing configurations such as planes. This is exploring how birds fly, and how they are able to do all kinds of aerobatic maneuvers.”