The first bird-like robot that can land like a real bird has been created by European scientists. The manoeuvre appears straightforward when a real bird lands on a branch, but it actually requires an extremely delicate balancing act between timing, high-impact forces, speed, and precision. No flapping-wing robot (ornithopter) has been able to master it until now because it is such a difficult manoeuvre.
Together with colleagues from the University of Seville in Spain, where the 700-gram ornithopter was created, Raphael Zufferey of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) constructed and tested his ornithopter.
According to Zufferey, “Once an ornithopter can master landing autonomously on a tree branch, then it has the potential to carry out specific tasks, such as covertly collecting biological samples or measurements from a tree.”
Having the ability to land on a perch, he continued, might make ornithopters more effective at using solar energy to recharge, potentially making them perfect for long-distance missions.
Engineering challenges included controlling numerous factors that nature has already so expertly balanced in order to land an ornithopter on a perch without any external commands. As it perched, it needed to be able to significantly slow down while keeping flight. The claw needed to be powerful enough to hold onto the perch and support the robot’s weight without being too heavy to lift.
The ornithopter was outfitted with a fully onboard computer and navigation system, which the researchers used in conjunction with an external motion-capture system to aid in positioning. The claw was made to quickly and firmly close in order to support the weight of the robot and absorb the robot’s forward momentum upon impact. Once perched, the robot stays there without using any energy.