Source: California Institute of Technology / Youtube screen grab
Source: California Institute of Technology / Youtube screen grab

Drones shaped like bats may be flying out of the Pentagon’s version of Batman’s Batcave in the not-too-distant future.

A new US Defense Department (DoD) pilot program put researchers on notice last week that it wants bat-like drones that can be powered with directed energy beams, according to a story on military website Defense One. The Defense Enterprise Science Initiative (DESI) says it’s offering basic science grants to those who can build “new paradigms for autonomous flight, with a focus on highly-maneuverable platforms and algorithms for flight control and decision making.”

“The biological study of agile organisms such as bats and flying insects has yielded new insights into complex flight kinematics of systems with a large number of degrees of freedom, and the use of multi-functional flight surface materials,” Defense One quoted the Pentagon as saying.

The thinking reflects a growing trend among military drones and robot designers to draw inspiration from Mother Nature. The DoD is developing small robots that move like spiders. Chinese scientists have also created robots that swim like fish.

One big problem of small flying drones is that their batteries run out of power like the Energizer Bunny. Research suggests, however, that wireless power transmission that relies on lasers could beam energy to keep these devices aloft. If it can be perfected, such technology could be used to power a range of autonomous surveillance and weapons systems. The energy could theoretically be beamed from an earth station or plane to keep the drones airborne.

Prototypes for a small winged robot that flies like a real bat already exist. In addition to wireless power technology, other challenges involve developing new ultra-light materials and sensors that allow these drones to do their work deep behind enemy lines.