This Nine-Piece Flex-Plane Drone Flaps Its Wings Like a Bird

The Flex-Plane essentially combines nine fixed-wing UAVs into one cohesive unit that allows its components to bend like a bird's wings.

W. Colby / Ran D. St. Clair

California electronics engineer Ran D. St. Clair’s nine-piece Flex-Plane drone is a lightweight UAV that plies its components like a bird flaps its wings.

First highlighted by Popular Mechanics, St. Clair’s drone was largely inspired by Boeing’s Odysseus, a solar-powered UAV with a 243-foot wingspan intended to serve as a high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS). The Flex-Plane, however, is a personal, hobby project of sorts, with the current model built upon previous three-piece iterations that struggled to stay afloat. Constructed from readily available materials, the drone’s movements certainly resemble the natural, fluid behaviors of a bird’s wings.

The drone is still a work in progress, but St. Clair definitely approached the project’s construction with a strong focus on removing the usual pressures and strains on an aerial vehicle’s components from the very beginning. St. Clair credits Boeing’s Odysseus drone for taking these considerations as seriously as he has.

“This led to the idea of making the aircraft modular with flexible joints that reduce the stresses on the relatively rigid modules,” he said. The results, a seemingly languid, smoothly floating drone made from consumer-grade materials, certainly points to his success in those terms.

The Flex-Plane is essentially built out of nine individual, interconnected fixed-wing drones. “The planes themselves are extremely simple and inexpensive, made of hobby-grade parts and foam board,” St. Clair explained. Controlling the Flex-Plane’s flight as one, cohesive unit, however, is managed through a main receiver and flight transmitter, which connects to each individual drone and transfers command signals via electrical wires. St. Clair calls this the "x9 configuration," and is adamant that there’s still much work to be done.

“This is only the first flight of the x9 configuration, and it is clearly not tuned properly yet,” he explained. “The various flapping and oscillation modes make the video more interesting, but the goal is to make it fly smoothly and well damped, even in modest turbulence.”

Ultimately, the Flex-Plane is a simultaneously impressive and fairly simple machine. For a personal hobby project, of course, it’s quite an achievement. Hopefully, we’ll get to track St. Clair’s progress across the next few iterations, and watch the endeavor truly take off to yet unattained heights.

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