The Chinese military’s top drone makers have built a new robotic bird that they say could have far-reaching applications, state media said. Images aired on Saturday showed the ornithopter dubbed “Little Falcon” taking flight during a recent test in Xi’an, capital city of China’s northwestern Shaanxi province.

A national news outlet described it as “the most agile and lifelike” bird-like drone anywhere in the world, and likely to lead the research in the field for years to come. For centuries, inventors have looked to birds for inspiration to create ornithopters—machines that achieve lift by flapping wings—chiefly for the purpose of human flight.

In director Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Dune series, characters also use ornithopters as a means of travel. The aircraft take off and land using flapping wings, which can fold back onto the fuselage to facilitate a rapid descent, much like the targeted dive of a bird of prey.


The team of researchers at Northwestern Polytechnical University, however, had a different vision for their ornithopter. It is a smaller, unmanned aerial vehicle that can serve multiple functions, including for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

China’s state media outlets, including state broadcaster CCTV, covered the drone’s debut. Potential applications included “military reconnaissance, ecological monitoring and environment protection,” the channel said.

The robotic bird’s nimble flight controls were made possible by the invention of a new crank mechanism, the report said, allowing the drone to fold its wings while flapping at the same time.

It can also make turns by folding one wing at a time, and extend both to increase its energy efficiency while gliding, according to CCTV.

“Such aircraft are suitable for reconnaissance, surveillance and even precision strike missions in special operations,” China’s nationalistic newspaper the Global Times said on Sunday about possible future applications.