Air Force Wants Shape-Shifting Aerial, Underwater Drones

The U.S. Air Force is funding research at Cornell University that could lead to the development of a miniature, shape-shifting drone able to scan its surroundings from the sky or beneath the sea.

The drone will have wings made of a composite material part silicone and part metal -- moving closer to the liquid metal envisioned in such science-fiction films as, "Terminator 2: Judgement Day."

At the heart of the research effort isn't a robo-killer, but a robo-fish.

"The driving vision behind this is the puffin," Ilse Van Meerbeek, a Cornell mechanical engineering graduate student working on the project, told LiveScience.com. "It can fly through the air then shorten its wings and dive into the water. Without this ability its wings would break.

(Image courtesy Cornell University) (Image courtesy Cornell University)

"The Air Force is interested, because they want to be able to develop morphing wings for small aircraft," she added. "Being able to do this without moving parts is appealing because then fewer parts can break."

The morphing material was described by the Cornell group in a paper published in the journal Advanced Materials in February. The research team said the composite was created by dipping the silicone foam into the molten metal and then placing it in a vacuum so the metal is sucked into the foam’s pores as the air is removed.

Not only can the material shift shapes, but it can self-assemble and self-heal.

The researchers told LiveScience that if two pieces of the material are placed side-by-side and heated, the metal melts and fuses the parts back together with only a slight loss in mechanical strength.

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