Design Engineering

Bat wings inspire unique design for unmanned micro air vehicles


General Aerospace

This new design allows for improved aerodynamic properties, allowing unmanned MAVs to fly over longer distances.

Micro air vehicle (MAV) developers are looking to nature for inspiration when designing a vehicle with optimal flight performance.

Southampton MAW Bat WingResearchers at the University of Southampton have done just that, designing a membrane wing that mimics the physiology of bats. Bats are the only type of mammal naturally capable of genuine flight.

This new design allows for improved aerodynamic properties, allowing unmanned MAVs to fly over longer distances.

The wing was developed with electro-active polymers, which works like an artificial muscle, stiffening and relaxing as voltage is applied. The electroactive membrane responds by changing its shape with the varying voltage, altering the aerodynamic characteristics during flight.


The research team built computational models to aid in the design and construction of a test MAV with the new bat wings. The findings were incorporated into a 0.5m-wide test vehicle designed to skim over the sea’s surface. The vehicle underwent extensive wind tunnel testing and was later tested at a nearby coastal region.

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

MAV wind tunnel testing

Wind tunnel testing of the membrane.

The next step is to integrate the bat-like wings into a standard MAV design. MAVs are used in a wide variety of civil and military applications. The team believes that real-world applications will be realized over the next five 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 optimize its aerodynamic performance,” says Dr Rafael Palacios of Imperial’s Department of Aeronautics, who led Imperial’s aspect of the project.


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