Who got that cash?

April 29, 2005

It sounds like Q's latest gadget for James Bond: a tiny spy plane the size of a cigar that can reconnoitre in confined spaces.

But aerospace expert Rafal Zbikowski of Cranfield University, at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham, hopes to build a working prototype within a decade.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has awarded Dr Zbikowski £0,000 over the next three years to create a flying machine with insect-like flapping wings.

"One of the reasons for looking at insects' flight is that they don't fly fast, but they're extremely manoeuvrable," Dr Zbikowski said.

"You can outrun a fly, but catching it is a different story."

He works with engineering and aeronautics experts and specialists in insect biology.

The biologists are throwing light on how insects beat their left and right wings differently as they fly. The challenge for Dr Zbikowski will be to match aerodynamic manoeuvrability to mechanical feasibility.

If funding continues, he foresees no insurmountable scientific obstacles.

"It does not require a breakthrough, just a lot of very good work," Dr Zbikowski said.

The flapping-wing technology has been developing since 1998, with other sponsors including the Ministry of Defence, the United States Air Force and Army and Nasa.

There is an obvious military market for "indoor" reconnaissance, which includes tunnels, caves and other confined spaces. But Dr Zbikowski believes there is an even bigger civilian market.

The tiny vehicles would potentially be able to inspect areas hazardous or difficult for humans, from earthquake disaster zones to chemical pipes and ships.

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