A Bird, Plane Or Drone? China’s Revolutionary Flapping Wing UAV Takes Flight, Expert Says Ideal For Recon Missions

China has successfully engineered a new type of ornithopter, an aircraft that achieves flight through flapping wings, with immense potential for both military and civilian applications, according to Chinese media outlets.

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The “Small Falcon,” as it is known, was captured in flight during a recent test in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, in footage aired on March 2.

Chinese media hailed the Small Falcon as the most bird-like drone globally, attributing its exceptional agility to a novel cone crank mechanism that imitates the wing-stretching and folding pattern observed in birds.

Described by China Central Television (CCTV) as “the most bird-like drone in the world,” the Small Falcon incorporates advanced technology inspired by the natural movements of birds.

The report said that the Small Falcon exhibits a range of crucial features through meticulous design optimizations aided by Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations and wind tunnel tests.

These include the ability to fold its wings while flapping, adjust flapping speed, fold one wing independently, and lock its wings for gliding maneuvers, providing unmatched agility and realism in flight.

Developed by a research team at Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU) in Xi’an, the Small Falcon represents the latest achievement in the university’s track record of innovation in drone technology.  

With close ties to China’s defense research sector, the university is known for its contributions to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and hypersonic technology development. The university’s association with the PLA had previously led to its inclusion on the US sanctions list.

According to the non-partisan think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s university tracker, it is the “only Chinese university hosting a UAV defense laboratory, NWPU produces the ASN series of UAVs through its subsidiary company, Aisheng Technology Group Co., Ltd.

The Chinese military is the company’s largest customer, and the company once claimed to produce 90% of China’s drones.”

File Image: An operator launching the Xinge bionic bird drone.

This isn’t the university’s first foray into ornithopter development. In October 2023, it introduced the ‘Xinge,’ another flapping wing drone that garnered international acclaim for breaking flight time records.

Potential For Military Applications

These drones, inspired by the mechanics of bird flight, represent a key stride in Chinese aviation technology. According to experts, there appears to be a remarkable similarity between highly biomimetic ornithopters and real birds, particularly at higher altitudes, making them difficult to distinguish with the naked eye.

While modern fixed-wing aircraft and rotorcraft employ various technologies to enhance stealth capabilities, ornithopters achieve stealth through their resemblance to birds. This natural camouflage allows them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings, making them less detectable to both radar and visual observation.

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The expert emphasized that even if spotted, observers are likely to dismiss them as harmless birds, enhancing their reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.

These drones, therefore, are ideally suited for reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision strike missions in special operations scenarios. Additionally, they pose minimal disturbance to wildlife, which makes them valuable tools for ecological monitoring and environmental protection efforts.

EurAsian Times previously suggested that with ongoing tensions with India, these bird drones could find strategic utility in tactical surveillance along the India-China border. Whether in Ladakh’s high-altitude deserts or the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh, they offer valuable reconnaissance capabilities.

The ornithopter bird drone Xinge, developed by China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University.

Although the project is currently free from military involvement, there is a possibility that the Chinese military may express interest in deploying ornithopters for testing and potential operational use once the technology matures.  

In Arunachal Pradesh, concerns have frequently been raised about China’s use of actual pigeons with Mandarin-scripted messages, indicating a non-electronic communication link between spies and handlers. Villagers in the Lohit Valley discovered birds with Chinese tags in May 2017, raising suspicions.

Meanwhile, these drones are not solely developed for defense purposes. Their potential civilian applications are vast, particularly in biodiversity conservation efforts and ecological research.

Besides that, as China boasts a large domestic civilian market and numerous biodiversity hotspots, the employment of bird drones presents a promising avenue for both military and civilian applications, reflecting a convergence of technological innovation and environmental stewardship.