Bat-inspired vehicles like Batman's supersonic Batwing have always been the stuff of comic books, but now British scientists may have found the real thing in a prototype drone.

Researchers have designed membrane wings inspired by bats, paving the way for a new breed of unmanned micro air vehicles that are aerodynamically smarter than their predecessors and can fly over long distances.

The wings work like artificial muscles, changing shape in response to the forces they experience and have no mechanical parts, making them easier to maintain.

The design incorporates electro-active polymers that make the wings stiffen and relax in response to an applied voltage and further enhances their performance.

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Dr Rafael Palacios, of Imperial College London, called it a "paradigm shift".

"Instead of a traditional approach of scaling down existing aircraft design methods, we constantly change the membrane shape under varying wind conditions to optimise its aerodynamic performance."