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Technology

DIY "Batcopter" Flies with Bats, Scares the Pants Off Them For Science

DiscoblogBy Veronique GreenwoodJune 18, 2011 12:14 AM

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Batcopter flying in bat swarm (half-speed) from Kenn Sebesta on Vimeo.

When DIY robotics and the single-minded persistence of scientists intersect, you get things like the Batcopter. This four-propellered hovering boxspring was designed by Boston University researchers to infiltrate flocks of millions of bats as they bob and weave, recording data about how they manage to avoid colliding while simultaneously (we are confident) scaring the bejeezus out of them. Built from chromed Home Depot towel racks, the first Batcopter was too heavy to fly correctly when the team got down to their research site in Texas, where millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats wing out each night. But the local ammunition and hardware stores were happy to help. The second Batcopter was rigged from carbon-fiber hunting arrows, packing foam, and twine, and the four props were surrounded with netting to keep the bats from getting sucked in. The real star of the flyer, the team says, was Open Pilot's CopterControl

, a self-stabilizing, easy-to-use control system for home-built unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The team got some good recordings from one airborne camera and three on the ground before the Batcopter's electronics started to burn out in the Texas heat. The craft took flight once more, to demonstrate its control mechanism for the camera, but took a fatal, spine-snapping dive when a piece of carbon fiber caught in a rotor. Now the group is off to analyze their data. "The hope," the team writes in a lavishly illustrated and delightfully thorough blog post

, "is to extract fundamental control laws of flying behavior in order to achieve better autonomous UAV flight." But the question on our minds as we watch this sucker whirr through clouds of bewildered bats is "When will they build another one? And how soon can we make one ourselves?"

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