Forward-looking: Researchers in the Netherlands have built a flying drone capable of highly maneuverable flight including impossible high-speed turns. They call it the "DelFly Nimble" --- a flapping robot that flies like an insect.

A joint team of engineers and scientists from Delft University of Technology's Micro Air Vehicle Laboratory (MAVLab) and Wageningen University & Research have created an autonomous winged drone that can mimic the flight mechanics of a fruit fly. If you have ever tried swatting a fruit fly, you know how maneuverable they are. Not only can the robot make a 90-degree turn with virtually no lost momentum, but it can also almost instantly reverse direction to execute turns tighter than 90 degrees.

The researchers built the insect-like drone to help them study and understand the flight dynamics of fruit flies. However, its exceptional flight capabilities also open up applications for commercial drones.

It four wings flap 17 beats per second. The DelFly is capable of hovering and flying in any direction using only subtle adjustments to its wing motions. It zips about at 25 km/h and can perform flips, barrel rolls, and 180-degree maneuvers.

"Moreover, the 33 cm wingspan and 29 gram robot has, for its size, excellent power efficiency, allowing 5 minutes of hovering flight or more than a 1 km flight range on a fully charged battery," said Matéj Karásek, lead designer of the robot and principal author of a study of the drone that was published in September's issue of Science.

The DelFly Nimble is not the first of its kind. MAVLab has been building insect-like robots for over a decade. The scientists studying them see potential applications in areas other than research, but the Nimble is the first to provide the maneuverability to make those applications practicable.

"Insect-inspired drones have a high potential for novel applications, as they are light-weight, safe around humans and are able to fly more efficiently than more traditional drone designs, especially at smaller scales," said Professor Guido de Croon, a scientific leader at MAVLab. "However, until now, these flying robots had not realized this potential since they were either not agile enough - such as our DelFly II - or they required an overly complex manufacturing process."

The DelFly Nimble is the first MAVLab drone that uses off-the-shelf components and is built on established manufacturing methods. Additionally, its flight endurance is extended enough to make it usable in "real-world applications."

Development of the DelFly Nimble will continue funded by the Dutch science foundation NWO.