• champ of flying technology

    Droneboy William

    Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It’s… technically a drone. A new form of flying technology is being developed - on the small scale - here in Groningen.

    in short

    William Thielicke is one of the best drone builders in Europe.

    Multirotors are limited in manoeuvrability. Birds can do it so much better.

    Using biomimetics – imitating natural designs in technology – Thielicke created a flapping wing device based on the movements of bird’s wings.

    It only flies in theory, though. There’s no energy source light enough yet to run it.

    He’s hopeful that his flapping device will be used soon, for example in searching for victims of an earthquake.

    complete version

    Reading time: 3 min. (695 words)

    German PhD candidate William Thielicke, 34, would prefer that there was another word for drone. They’re best known as military weapons, but there is a difference in the devices used for civil applications instead. Drones, which are remote controlled flying machines that often rely on rotors, can just as easily be used for cinematography. Thielicke himself uses them for fun.

    He has been designing and building multirotors since 2007. He remotely controls them by watching a video feed from the perspective of the pilot’s seat, and flies them in international competitions for speed and manoeuvrability; he is considered one of the best builders and competitors in Europe.

    ‘Multirotors are my hobby, but I always noticed that they’re pretty limited in manoeuvrability’, Thielicke says.  But nature has got it right: ‘When I see birds fly through a forest, that is something I can never do with a multirotor. Not only because they have fast brains and control systems, but because of the physics of their wings.’

    A flapping, winged device

    That observation led him to his research at the RUG. Using biomimetics – imitating natural designs in technology – Thielicke created a flapping wing device based on the movements of bird’s wings, combining manoeuvrability and energy efficiency. It works, at least in a lab, but it can’t take flight in reality just yet.

    There isn’t yet an energy source that is lightweight and efficient enough to bring it to life. ‘It was built to measure forces and to see if it could fly in theory’, Thielicke says.  Although he thinks that solar panels may be an option in the near future, for now, ‘the extra weight of the solar cells is higher than the extra gain in energy’, he says.

    His current employer, TobyRich, makes ‘radio-controlled gadgets’ that are coupled with smart phones, and are interested in developing Thielicke’s flapping wing model. The Dutch police are also interested in some of his work. They can see useful application of the hobby copters: because they’re so small and manoeuvrable, they could be used to track a fleeing criminal or in observing public protests.

    Military options

    Thielicke doesn’t see that as being like Big Brother, though. ‘I know there are a lot of people who are concerned about this kind of supervision, but at least you can notice it. You see them and they make noise, and there are a lot more kinds of supervisions that you don’t notice, like traces on the internet and security cameras.’

    Although he would be fine with police using his work, he refuses to consider any military applications. In fact, the main way he would like to see his flapping wing drone being used is providing aid in disaster response in inaccessible areas.

    Like an airplane, it could cruise with minimal wing movement to travel long distances, then change its flight mode to essentially hover like an insect. Insects use downwards movement of their wings to create vortices above them, which lowers pressure and creates lift. This agility would be useful if a remote region was struck by an earthquake or tsunami; the drone could be used to survey the damage and move freely amidst debris.


    Thielicke is living and working in Bremen now, and even though he’s looking for a way to bring his models to the masses, he’s preoccupied with more than new flying technology lately: he has 16-month-old twins. ‘They take all of my attention,’ he explains with a laugh. So far, he hasn’t deployed any multirotors as baby monitors in the nursery, but his children have influenced his work. One model, called Gemini – the twins – is being produced by a Swiss company. ‘It’s a dedication to them, and the money I make on that will be spent on diapers.’

    Thielicke will be awarded a PhD for his work, The flapping flight of birds – Analysis and Application, at the RUG on 31 October. His research was done through the Ocean Ecosystems of the Energy and Sustainability Research Institute Groningen (ESRIG).