Drones that Look Like Birds: The Sneaky UAVs Disguised as Wildlife

Last updated December 13th, 2019
A robin singing on a branch

It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! Uh…wait a minute…is that a drone?

Yes, drones that look like birds are a very real thing, and depending on where you are, they may have already flown in a location near you.

A few models of drones that look and act like birds have been developed in some places and are being used for various activities that range from bird watching to spying on people.

We take a look at some examples in this article.

China’s Dove Drone

China has been running a “spy bird” program for a few years, codenamed “Dove”.

According to the South China Morning Post, more than 30 military and government agencies have already taken advantage of the program to deploy bird-like drones and related devices in at least five provinces in the recent past.

The Dove program is headed by Song Bifeng, a professor at Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province. And members of his team have confirmed the existence of the program, although insisting that its use was not widespread.

Members of the Dove project team are motivated by their belief that the biologically inspired engineering holds the key to drones that can evade human detection including radar.

And their efforts have come a long way in proving that concept.

The bird drones currently in China’s robot flock are able to replicate about 90% of the movements of a real dove. In addition to that, they produce very little noise which makes them hard to detect by those on the ground.

In fact, China’s bird drones are so lifelike that they frequently attract real birds to flock alongside them.

Those involved with the Dove drone program are quick to insist that the program is still in its early stages of development. But they remain optimistic about the many ways in which their technology will be use beyond the scope of police and military operations.

Given the many applications like disaster relief, emergency response, environmental protection, and urban planning, experts are estimating that the market for these drones could exceed 10 billion yuan ($1.54 billion) in China alone.

Features of the Dove Drone

These birdlike drones come with a few features that set it apart:

  • Unlike other drones you will come across that employ fixed wings or rotor blades, these Dove drones mimic the flapping wing action of a bird in order to climb, dive, and turn in the air.
  • The Dove drones have a weight of 20 ounces and a wingspan of about 20 inches. They are able to fly at speeds up to 25 miles per hour for a maximum of 30 minutes.
  • These drones come fitted with a high definition camera, GPS antenna, a flight control system, and a data link which is capable of communicating with satellites.
  • There is also specially designed software that helps in balancing the jerky movements of the drone in order to ensure that the on-board camera achieves sharp, stable, and focused photo and video.
  • The Dove drone’s ability to seamlessly melt into the background has made it a key interest for military and government organizations.

According to Professor Li Yachao, a military radar researcher at the National Defense Technology Laboratory of Radar Signal Processing in Xian, the Dove drone’s wings look so much like the real thing that they could even fool the most sensitive radar technologies.

More to that, Professor Li Yachao believes the use of camouflage like real feathers on the drone’s outer body could cause even more confusion. All these make the Dove drone a serious threat to contend with.

How Are These Dove Drones Being Used?

The Dove system has already been tested by the military who have so far been impressed with it. According to reports, the drones have been found to offer “practical value”.

One of those values seems to be in the area of surveillance. The Dove has already been deployed in provinces like Xinjaing, which is an autonomous region in China’s far west that is noted for separatist politics — a key reason to merit special surveillance from Beijing.

Flaws

These drones, amazing and revolutionary as they are, are not without their flaws.

Firstly, like most drones in circulation, they are not able to travel long distances before having to come down for a recharge.

They are also hampered by strong winds while in flight and maintaining course becomes difficult in bad weather. In addition to that, they perform really poorly in heavy rain or snow.

Lastly, they are prone to crashing when flying at low altitudes.

The Dove drone is far from being the finished product it could be, but strides are being made in that direction.

According to Professor Song, the next generation of robotic birds may even be able to fly in complex formations and make independent decisions during flight.

Ultimately, according to Professor Song, the aim is to create drones that can “match or surpass the intelligence of creatures found in nature”.

The US Military’s Maverick Drone

What do you do when you need to spy on a target from the air without being spotted?

You get a drone, right?

Even better when it’s one that doesn’t look like a drone.

That’s exactly what the US military thought in 2013 when they reached out to Prioria Robotics.

The thing with drones is that they are easy to identify in the air by people who know how they look and sound. You are better off with a micro-drone that looks like a bird and can thus blend into the background, making them invisible like the pilots controlling them.

Prioria Robotics’ response to the needs of the US military was the Maverick: a bird-like UAV with flexible wings that has the look of a raptor in flight.

According to Derek Lyons, vice president of sales and business development at Prioria Robotics, there was a requirement in the Special Operations Department for a drone that had a natural or biological appearance, one that it didn’t look like if came straight out of the department of defence.

Features of the Maverick

The Maverick was built to meet a specific request, and thus it came with some unique features:

  • It has a bird-like profile with flexible wings. This gives it the appearance of a raptor while in flight to those observing from the ground.
  • The drone is made of composite material for durability, and can fly as high as 25,000 feet.
  • It can fly at speeds up to 65 miles per hour which makes it perfect for swift movement when engaged in stealth missions from up above.
  • It is launched by tube and is designed to be contained within a 6-inch tube.
  • It weighs only 2.5 pounds total and requires no putting together to get it ready for use. It can launched by a lone soldier within 5 minutes of taking it out of the box.
  • Once the Maverick reaches a height of 100 meters in the air, its sound can no longer be heard by people from the ground.
  • The drone comes with a retractable gimbaled camera that is flexible enough to capture footage from almost any angle. The camera is rumored to be powerful enough to work fine even in the most inclement weather.
  • Its battery is lasts for about an hour. But it takes no more than 30 seconds to switch a dead set of batteries with a fully charged pack and have the drone ready to take off again.
  • Once the drone is done flying, it can be caught with a net.

Flygildi and the Silent Flyer

Drones can be your eyes in the sky. But how do you see without being seen? That was the question the founders of Flygildi were trying to answer when they founded their company in 2012.

Tired of having drones that stick out like a sore thumb in the sky, the Icelandic duo, Dr Leifur Por Leifsson and Hjalti Hardarson, decided to create a drone that would look at home in the sky.

And thus, their Silent Flyer was born.

When speaking about the Silent Flyer and how the idea came about, Hardarson explains, “It started with Gavia, an autonomous underwater drone designed as a research tool for marine biologists, and a mine-detection device.

“However, it could only be used if accompanied by a boat out at sea. We then decided it would be good to have a device that didn’t need a crew out at sea, and the Silent Flyer was born.”

Features of the Silent Flyer

The Silent Flyer is a drone that possesses unique mechanics that allow it move in a truly birdlike manner. In addition to that, it has a few features that make it stand out from any other drone out there:

  • The Silent Flyer is completely autonomous and can fly at speeds of up to 55 kilometers per hour and at heights of up to 300 meters.
  • The drone can hold a camera in its beak during flight.
  • When flapping its wings continuously, the Silent Flyer can fly for up to 40 minutes. But should it make use of its glide features, like a real bird, then this flight time is greatly increased.
  • The drone has a wingspan of 1.2 meters
  • The Silent Flyer makes very little noise. The motors used to power the flapping motion emit less than 70 decibels of noise.

So how does this drone mimic the graceful movements of birds?

The Silent Flyer uses flapping flight for lift and propulsion, and the wings move in the same way that those of birds do, with a total of 11 degrees of freedom.

The drone’s appearance can also be modified or disguised by changing the shape and color of the feathers and wings. Since the feathers are 3-D printed, they can be modified easily.

What this means for operators is that the Silent Flyer can be personalized to mimic the bird of your choice. You can choose to make your drone look like birds that are local to the area where you intend to fly, so that it blends naturally with the surrounding.

The Technology Going Forward

You can expect to see more drones inspired by nature as time moves on. Not only do these tend to be more efficient because of their design, they also interrupt with the surroundings a lot less, making them very attractive to many industries.

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