This story appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Remote-controlled drones have become an invaluable tool for government agencies, researchers, filmmakers—anyone trying to get a bird’s-eye perspective on the world. Today’s most common drone, the quadcopter, excels at vertical takeoffs and stationary hovering. But it’s noisy and is a literal drag when it comes to forward flight. Its whirring motors burn about four times the amount of power as a plane-like drone with rigid wings.
So-called ornithopters, which have flapping wings, offer the best of both worlds. The one seen here, named SmartBird, has a 6.5-foot wingspan and was modeled after a herring gull. It can cross the sky silently and efficiently and can take off and land in tight quarters.
The next advance, dronebuilders say, will be to emulate the way birds change the shape of their wings by overlapping their feathers, as when a peregrine falcon performs a dive at more than 200 miles an hour. “I don’t know any aerial robot that can do that,” says David Lentink, a Stanford University mechanical engineer who studies biological flight.