When did Animal Dynamics start?

We spun out from Oxford University in 2015 co-founded by Professor Adrian Thomas and Alex Caccia, who shared an interest in how the biomechanics of fish enable them to swim at rapid speeds. They developed this curiosity into an initial project called Malolo, focused on building a machine powered by the same type of flapping propulsion found under the sea.

What is Animal Dynamics’ vision?

Animal Dynamics is studying how the animal kingdom tackles movement on land, sea, and air and how it achieves greater efficiency and performance.  We extract the underlying physics from these complicated systems and use it as inspiration for an engineering design that does the same thing. In particular there are some very subtle mechanics and fluid dynamics which have not been fully exploited and can be used to build machines, robots, and propulsion systems that are highly efficient and limit the impact on the environment.

Why do we think the time is right for bio-inspired engineering?

Three factors are combining to make the timing right – the strength of academic expertise we can apply; a better approach to engineering solutions, i.e. not biomimetics; and commoditisation of technology components.  We are deploying expertise that Professor. Adrian Thomas has gained from 30 years studying insect flight aerodynamics. That allows us to solve issues that other designs have overlooked.  From a design and engineering perspective we are not looking to copy nature.  We are looking for common patterns that different species have refined over millions of years of evolution to address complex movement issues.  We identify the shared underlying physics and turn that into sophisticated engineering products.  Finally, thanks to the mobile industry certain electronic components have recently become available at sufficiently low cost and size so that an overall design is more feasible.

Biomimetics implies copying nature; what we are interested in is different: it involves learning from nature, and understanding why particular design solutions have succeeded through evolution. This approach is then applied to particular problems, using the best available materials and control systems. The end result does not necessarily look like the species that may have been the basis of inspiration or research, but it will share the underlying physics that lead led to the evolved design and performance characteristics.

For instance, the dragonfly has 64 independent muscles in its wing structure and has used 300 million years of evolution to refine its framework.  Not all of this natural engineering is relevant to us.  One of our challenges has been to quantify and understand those features that are most relevant to our needs, namely building a micro-drone that flies in strong gusts. 

Why do we not consider this to be biomimetics? 

What projects are we currently working on?

Currently we have two main projects. We are designing and developing a micro-drone, called Skeeter, which has been inspired by the biology of the dragonfly.  This project is being funded by UK Ministry of Defence’s Innovation Initiative and is being overseen by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).  The goal is to deliver the first fully operational drone to Dstl in Spring 2018.

The second project is Malolo, which is a propulsion mechanism inspired by the fin movements of whales and dolphins.  This is currently in the research and development phase with the initial goal of designing a craft which will attempt to break the human powered water speed record.  Longer-term we believe this will be applicable to water propulsion systems for ships and energy generation mechanisms.

It’s a misnomer to say that if you want to build something robust enough to fly in difficult conditions and still be performant it needs to be big.  For example, we could have studied the biology of the Peregrine Falcon for our micro-drone, because it is so fast and is a very high performance flyer. However, we have found that the insect world is much better suited to our task, especially because we are building something at miniature scale. 

The dragonfly is a particularly good model: they are one of the most versatile flyers and top predators in the insect kingdom; and their wing plan span enables them to glide. Dragonflies hunt and catch all the other insects we might have used as models. They catch them by outperforming them in flight. They also come in a variety of forms that suit our micro-drone’s mission – hawkers that fly almost all of the time hunting insects and spotting on the wing while flying; darters that sit on a perch looking for prey then dash out to catch it; chasers that mix both strategies but specialise in aerial combat.

Why did we choose a dragonfly as the inspiration for our micro-drone?

Using the quadcopter model creates limitations around performance and endurance.  If you want to make the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) go faster you sacrifice endurance, which is important for our initial project with Dstl.  In strong gusts, the quadcopter approach does not cope well and uses up a lot of battery power, again limiting endurance.  Using quadcopters can also be noisy, which undermines the principle of covert surveillance and they find it very difficult to hover with efficient energy use.  Additionally, if one of the rotors stops working the quadcopter becomes useless and could endanger ground troops if they have to retrieve the device.  Consequently, we are looking to address these problems with a solution that is also cost effective and is light enough to be easily transported.

Why did you not choose a multi-copter model for your micro-drone?

Absolutely.  We have already had some enquiries from search and rescue organisations who see our technology being invaluable when teams are investigating dangerous and hazardous environments. Larger versions of Skeeter could be used in situations where greater endurance is needed, such as for agriculture and delivery drones.

There are also applications in the medical devices industry for the small motors.  We have been developing actuators as part of the Skeeter project, which are being designed into a micro-precision fluid pump.

Are there applications for our micro-drone beyond military situations? 

Yes definitely.  We have some very specific requirements, because of the complexity of the design and engineering challenges we are dealing with.  Do look at our careers section for more information.  If you join Animal Dynamics you have the opportunity to work with a team of the best engineers from incredibly diverse backgrounds, ranging from software, to composites, robotics and even watchmaking.  Everyone is drawn to working here by the excitement and complexity of the challenges we have.  This is the place to come if you really want to test your expertise!

Are there opportunities to work for Animal Dynamics?