The robotic bat in all its glory  (Source: NCSU)
A robotic bat designed the physiology of real bats may have a number of uses in the future

Researchers from North Carolina State University are developing a new robotic bat with a metal skeleton that one day could have a wide range of uses in the civilian and military industries.

NC State doctoral student So Bunget is working alongside a mechanical engineering professor to develop a next-generation of micro-aerial vehicles (MAVs) that have increased maneuverability, better aerodynamics and with small sensors used to possibly pick up biological, chemical or nuclear agents in the United States and on the battlefields overseas.

Researchers studied the skeletal and muscular systems of bats to more accurately mimic their flying style.  After full construction is completed, the bat weighs less than 6 grams, researchers said.

"The key concept here is the use of smart materials," according to NC State researcher Dr. Stefan Seelecke.  "We are using a shape-memory metal alloy that is super elastic for the joints.  The material provides a full range of motion, but will always return to its original position -- a function performed by many tiny bones, cartilage and tendons in real bats."

Researchers also simulating a bat's muscular system using smart materials as well.

"We're using an alloy that responds to the heat from an electric current.  That heat actuates micro-scale wires the size of a human hair, making them contract like metal muscles."

The development and use of MAVs is expected to continue to grow as the technology and durability of such units continues to increase.  The target size for today's generation of MAVs is about six inches, though researchers are developing MAVs the size of insects.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are similar yet not as technologically advanced as some MAVs, are increasingly used in Iraq and Afghanistan since they can fly long distances and there is no threat of loss of life -- but these devices have a more specialized use.  In addition to searching for biological weapons, they can also confirm if a target was successfully destroyed after an airstrike.  Smaller MAVs will also be used to evaluate structural damage to buildings that may be unsafe for human inspectors.

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