Public Release: 

Bat-flight inspires unique design for Micro Air Vehicles

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Innovative membrane wings that work like artificial muscles have been successfully tested in-flight, paving the way for a new breed of unmanned Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) that have improved aerodynamic properties, can fly over long distances and are more economical to run. Inspired by bats, the wings change shape in response to the forces they experience and have no mechanical parts, making MAVs incorporating them easier to maintain.

The unique design of the wings incorporates electro-active polymers that make the wings stiffen and relax in response to an applied voltage and further enhances their performance.

By changing the voltage input, the shape of the electroactive membrane and therefore aerodynamic characteristics can be altered during flight. The proof of concept wing will eventually enable flight over much longer distances than currently possible.

The wings have been developed through a unique combination of hands-on experimental work at the University of Southampton and computational research at Imperial College London, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The United States Air Force, through their European Office of Aerospace Research and Development (EOARD), provided additional support.

Sometimes as small as 15cm across, MAVs are increasingly used in a wide variety of civil and military applications, such as surveying remote and dangerous areas. One emerging trend among MAV developers is to draw inspiration from the natural world to design vehicles that can achieve better flight performance and that offer similar levels of controllability to small drones but use the efficiency provided by wings to fly much further.

The Southampton-Imperial team have focused on mimicking the physiology of bats - the only type of mammal naturally capable of genuine flight. To inform and speed up the design process, the Imperial team built innovative computational models and used them to aid the construction of a test MAV incorporating the pioneering 'bat wings'.

Dr Rafael Palacios of Imperial's Department of Aeronautics, who led this aspect of the project, says: "No-one has tried to simulate the in-flight behaviour of actuated bat-like wings before, so we had to go back to fundamentals, develop the mathematical models and build the multiphysics simulation software we needed from scratch. We had to make sure it could model not only the wings themselves but also the aerodynamic flows around them and the effect of the electric field generated across them."

The Southampton team incorporated some of these findings into a 0.5m-wide test vehicle, designed to skim over the sea's surface and, if necessary, land there safely. After extensive wind tunnel testing, the vehicle was put through its paces at a nearby coastal location.

Professor Bharath Ganapathisubramani of the University of Southampton's Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Group, who has led the overall project, says: "We've successfully demonstrated the fundamental feasibility of MAVs incorporating wings that respond to their environment, just like those of the bats that have fuelled our thinking. We've also shown in laboratory trials that active wings can dramatically alter the performance. The combined computational and experimental approach that characterised the project is unique in the field of bio-inspired MAV design."

The next step is to incorporate the active wings into typical MAV designs, with deployment in real-world applications potentially achievable over the next 5 years.

"This is a paradigm shift in the approach to MAV design. Instead of a traditional approach of scaling down existing aircraft design methods, we constantly change the membrane shape under varying wind conditions to optimise its aerodynamic performance," says Dr Palacios, Imperial College London.


For media enquiries and images/videos contact The EPSRC Press Office, Tel: 01793 444 404, e-mail:

Professor Bharath Ganapathisubramani, Aerodynamics and Flight Mechanics Group, University of Southampton, Tel: 023 8059 2305, e-mail:;

Dr Rafael Palacios, Department of Aeronautics, Imperial College London, Tel: 020 7594 5075, e-mail:;

Notes for Editors:

The 3.5 year research project 'Towards Biologically Inspired Active-Compliant-Wing Micro Air Vehicles' began in June 2012 and has received total EPSRC funding of around £249,000.

Research Papers

Buoso S., Palacios R., "Viscoelastic Effects in the Aeromechanics of Actuated Elastomeric Membrane Wings." Journal of Fluids and Structures, In print []

Buoso S., Palacios R., "Electro-Aeromechanical Modelling of Actuated Membrane Wings." Journal of Fluids and Structures, Vol. 58, pp. 188-202, October 2015 []

R. Bleischwitz, R. de Kat, and B. Ganapathisubramani. "Aspect-Ratio Effects on Aeromechanics of Membrane Wings at Moderate Reynolds Numbers", AIAA Journal, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2015), pp. 780-788. doi: 10.2514/1.J053522

A Barbu, R. de Kat, and B. Ganapathisubramani. "Aero-electro-mechanical Coupling of Electro-Active Membrane Wings", 24th AIAA/AHS Adaptive Structures Conference, AIAA SciTech, (AIAA 2016-0820).

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate.

By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture.

We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

European Office of Aerospace Research & Development

About the University of Southampton

Through world-leading research and enterprise activities, the University of Southampton connects with businesses to create real-world solutions to global issues. Through its educational offering, it works with partners around the world to offer relevant, flexible education, which trains students for jobs not even thought of. This connectivity is what sets Southampton apart from the rest; we make connections and change the world.

About Imperial College London

Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The College's 14,000 students and 7,500 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for society.

Founded in 1907, Imperial builds on a distinguished past - having pioneered penicillin, holography and fibre optics - to shape the future. Imperial researchers work across disciplines to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable energy technology and address security challenges. This blend of academic excellence and its real-world application feeds into Imperial's exceptional learning environment, where students participate in research to push the limits of their degrees.

Imperial nurtures a dynamic enterprise culture, where collaborations with industrial, healthcare and international partners are the norm. In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.

Imperial has nine London campuses, including its White City Campus: a 25 acre research and innovation centre in west London. At White City, researchers, businesses and higher education partners are co-locating to create value from ideas on a global scale.

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