Autonomous flying in a swarm

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With the BionicBee, Festo’s Bionic Learning Network has now for the first time developed a flying object that can fly in large numbers and completely autonomously in a swarm which the company recently presented at the Hannover Messe 2024.

For more than 15 years, the Festo Bionic Learning Network has been focusing on the fascination of flying. In addition to the technical decoding of bird flight, the team has researched and technologically implemented numerous other flying objects and their natural principles.

At around 34 grams, a length of 220 millimetres and a wingspan of 240 millimetres, company’s latest project, the BionicBee, is the smallest flying object created by the Bionic Learning Network to date. For the first time, the developers used the method of generative design: after entering just a few parameters, a software application uses defined design principles to find the optimal structure to use as little material as necessary while maintaining the most stable construction possible. This consistent lightweight construction is essential for good manoeuvrability and flying time.

 

The bee’s body forms the compact housing for the beating wing mechanism, the communication technology as well as the control components for the wing beats and the adaptation of the wing geometry. A brushless motor, three servo motors, the battery, the gear unit and various PCBs are installed in the tightest of spaces. The intelligent interaction between the motors and the mechanics means that the frequency of the wing beats can, for example, be precisely adjusted for the various manoeuvres.

If the bee is supposed to fly forward, the geometry is adjusted so that the lift in the rear wing position is greater than in the forward position. This causes the body to tilt forward (pitch), and the bee flies forward. If the geometry is adjusted so that the right wing generates more lift than the left wing, the bee rolls around the longitudinal axis to the left and flies off to the side. Another option is to adjust it in such a way that one wing generates more lift at the front, and the second wing generates more lift at the rear. This causes the bee to rotate (yaw) around the vertical axis.

The autonomous behaviour of the bee swarm is achieved with the help of an indoor locating system with ultra-wideband (UWB) technology. For this purpose, eight UWB anchors are installed in the space on two levels. This enables an accurate time measurement and allows the bees to locate themselves in the space. The UWB anchors send signals to the individual bees, which can independently measure the distances to the respective transmitting elements and calculate their own position in the space using the time stamps.

To fly in a swarm, the bees follow the paths specified by a central computer. To ensure safe and collision-free flight in close formation, a high degree of spatial and temporal accuracy is required. When planning the path, the possible mutual interaction through air turbulence “downwash” must also be taken into account.

As every bee is handmade and even the smallest manufacturing differences can influence its flight behaviour, the bees additionally have an automatic calibration function: After a short test flight, each bee determines its individually optimised controller parameters. The intelligent algorithm can thus calculate the hardware differences between the individual bees, allowing the entire swarm to be controlled from outside as if all bees were identical.

www.festo.com/bionicbee

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