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IISc lab working on aircraft that is as small as a fly

It's not just the electronic gadgets, even the aeroplanes are shrinking! The new planes, which can be as small as a fly, can fly over disaster struck areas to search for survivors, and go on a reconnaissance mission in strategically sensitive regions. Such tiny aircraft are being developed by engineers at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

About a hundred years ago, after years of experimentation, Wright Brothers gave wings to mankind. Since then, aircraft have become bigger and more versatile in applications. Today, big passenger aircraft like Boeing – 747 and Airbus 380, ferry more than four hundred people in one go. Military aircraft, on the other hand, are rapidly evolving in technology and can take off in and fly in challenging conditions. Faster, bigger, and more efficient passenger aircraft are slowly transforming the 'hub and wheel' mode of operations of the airline industry. That means, in the next few decades, if you are on your way to New York, you don't have to change flights at Frankfurt or London and worry about your baggage. As in buses and trains, you can just go from point A to B. Non stop.

When the aerospace research community was busy developing bigger and more agile aircraft, one simple question remained unanswered: how does a fly manage to fly? The ubiquitous flight of a fly seemed to defy the aerodynamic principles on which aircraft were built. However, in the last three or four decades, we have not only better understood insect flight, but also managed to mimic them to some extent.

Researchers at the 'Nonlinear Multifunctional Composites - Analysis and Design Laboratory (NMCAD Lab)' at IISc, headed by Prof Dineshkumar Harursampath, are busy trying to appreciate and recreate such 'aircraft designs,' perfected by nature over millions of years. Of course they are in august company: the designer of the legendary Boeing 747 derived inspiration from birds. Prof Satish Dhawan, father of the Indian space programme, was fascinated by bird flight and even wrote a book about it.

Deciphering insect flight is a challenging task. Using sophisticated visualising techniques, and computational tools, scientists have realised that insect flight is much more than what meets the unaided eye. Insects can not only flap and rotate their wings, but also deform them momentarily. Such stunts help them perform enviable acrobatics, which we tend to take for granted: they can change speed and directions very quickly, and land on a dancing flower in a gale wind. To imagine how complicated it is, think of parking your vehicle into a moving space!

Though Prof. Dineshkumar Harursampath and his students are ambitious, their methods are humble. Prof. Harursampath strongly believes in “keenly observing nature, learning from it, and carefully adapting, rather than blindly incorporating those lessons onto engineered structures.” However, observing a small insect, which beats its wings a few hundred times in a second, is a challenge by itself. He and his students use state of the art techniques to gain insights into how nature has engineered insects. Using novel materials that are light and flexible, his students successfully designed aircraft that are of the size of a crow. Now, his team has a 'smaller' goal: to build an aircraft that is as small as a fly.

Prof. Harursampath is conscious of one important aspect of design found in nature: sustainability. “Nothing in nature eventually goes waste. It has a built-in recycling system. Even its occasional short-term destruction is aimed at long-term reconstruction,” he says. His lab also focuses on employing environment-friendly materials for various applications. With sky as the limit, both practically and figuratively, and nature as the guide, the lab is set for a long flight.

Contact: Prof Dineshkumar Harursampath is a Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He can be reached at +91-80-2293-3032.