The research team, comprising scientists from South Australia, Singapore, China and Taiwan, had designed a ornithopter or flapping wing aircraft which is able to dart, glide, brake and dive just like a swift, the University of South Australia said in a statement.
UniSA aerospace engineer Professor Javaan Chahl said aping the design of birds, like swifts, was just one way to improve flight performance of flapping wing drones.
"There are existing ornithopters, but, until now, they were too inefficient and slow to be agile. We have overcome these issues with our flapping wing prototype, achieving the same thrust generated by a propeller," he said.
Dr Yao-Wei Chin, a researcher from the National University of Singapore and leader of the project, has published a paper on the project in Science Robotics. He says the biologically-inspired drones could be used successfully in a range of environments.
The optimised ornithopter acts as a kind of scarecrow, greatly saving on labour costs for pest control companies and airport operators," Dr Chin said.
No ornithopters are available for sale, but the latest breakthrough could lead to a change, the researchers claim.
For that they would need to improve the design so ornithopters can produce enough thrust to hover, carry a camera and accompanying electronics, and use the flapping wing drone for crowd and traffic monitoring, information gathering and surveying forests and wildlife.
The flapping drones are also much safer. They are lighter and their slow beating wings pose less danger to the public than quadcopter drones in the event of a crash, The versatility of the ornithopter lies in the fact that if it has enough thrust and power banks it could be modified to carry different payloads depending on need.
The researchers said one area that called for more research was how birds would react to a mechanical flying object resembling them in size and shape. Small, domesticated birds were easily scared by drones, but large flocks and much bigger birds had been known to attack ornithopters.
But Dr Chin scotched any speculation that the team was close to biological flight.
"Although ornithopters are the closest to biological flight with their flapping wing propulsion, birds and insects have multiple sets of muscles which enable them to fly incredibly fast, fold their wings, twist, open feather slots and save energy," he explained.
"Their wing agility allows them to turn their body in mid-air while still flapping at different speeds and angles.
"Common swifts can cruise at a maximum speed of 31 metres a second, equivalent to 112kmph or 90mph.
"At most, I would say we are replicating 10% of [the speed of] biological flight," he says.
The project marked the culmination of doctoral work done by Dr Yao-Wei Chin at Nanyang Technological University under the guidance of Associate Professor Gih-Keong Lau (now with National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan), and an international collaboration comprising Professor Boo Cheong Khoo (National University of Singapore), Professor Javaan Chahl and Dr Jia Ming Kok (University of South Australia and Defence Science and Technology Group, Australia), Dr Yong-Qiang Zhu (Qingdao University of Technology, China) and Dr Woei Leong Chan (National University of Singapore).