A STEALTHY unmanned paraglider inspired by bird flight has been funded for fast-tracked development under a Ministry of Defence scheme.

Pioneering technology created by Animal Dynamics Ltd near Oxford is one of five cutting-edge concepts chosen by the MOD in its Innovation Autonomy Challenge.

It is hoped the company’s Stork aerial vehicle, which is capable of speedily swooping deliveries into pre-programmed locations, could assist military and aid workers in hazardous situations.

Entrepreneur Alex Caccia, chief executive of Animal Dynamics, explained that fixed-wing aircraft required a runway and the alternative, a helicopter, was not efficient at lifting heavy weight without huge cost.

He went on: “We’ve found a rather interesting compromise that takes off and lands in a tiny amount of space and can carry very large amounts of weight.

“Development is quite rapid and we are already shipping out early test units - it’s really exciting.”

Stork is powered by an electric motor and based on paraglider wing technology, with design informed by a deep study of soaring birds.

Benefits include short take-off and landing capabilities, robust canopy, ability to glide silently to its target and low running costs.

Models are capable of travelling distances up to 300km and speeds of 70km an hour.

Being shortlisted in the challenge means Animal Dynamics will receive a share of a £3.8m funding pot to help development and testing.

Mr Caccia said: “The challenge of getting that funded in the conventional way, through venture capital, is that [sponsors] tend to like fun stuff when it’s more or less working and eliminated the technological risk.

“The MOD will fund innovative approaches to difficult problems, which is extremely valuable in the early exponential stage.”

Animal Dynamics was set up in 2015 as an Oxford University spin-out company, with help from Oxford University Innovation.

It was co-founded by Mr Caccia and biomechanics professor Adrian Thomas of Oxford University’s zoology department.

The company, based at Begbroke Science Park, uses the movement of animals to inspire revolutionary designs in engineering technology.

Mr Caccia said: “Efficient movement is an absolutely fundamental factor of survival in the natural world.

“Looking at the myriad of ways in which natural systems have evolved is an interesting area, and a huge treasure trove to investigate.

“What we are doing is deploying that understanding of the physics.”

As well as Stork, the company’s other projects include a micro-drone called Skeeter, inspired by the biology of a dragonfly.

This is also supported by the MOD, which hopes it could transform surveillance missions.

Mr Caccia said the Ministry encouraged Animal Dynamics to submit an entry to the latest challenge, to create an unmanned transport system.

One of the five given funding will eventually be used on the front line.

He said: “This is a real problem that needs to be solved, which makes for a much more gritty [development] process and provides a lot of constraints, which generally makes for a better solution.

“What’s heartening is that even though this has been triggered by a very specific military requirement, the problem is common to many other instances, so solving it has more positive impacts.”

He said Animal Dynamics was part of a wider network of projects facilitated by the university, and this had changed business investment in Oxford for the better.

Prototypes of the five projects will be built this year – others by Qinetiq, Barnard Microsystems Ltd, Fleetonomy and Horiba Mira.

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is leading the innovation scheme alongside the MOD, the UK Research and Innovation, and the Department for International Development.

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson has praised the ‘next-generation concepts’, adding: “They could be saving troops’ lives on the battlefield in years to come.”

UK Research and Innovation is funding the project under its Robots for a Safer World challenge.

International development minister Harriett Baldwin said she was ‘proud’ of experts’ efforts so far.

She added: “Unmanned aerial vehicles could be a game changer in delivering life-saving UK aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the aftermath of humanitarian disasters.”