A Thinking Ornithopter.

In recent years there has been a lot of effort put into making very small flying robots the size of large insects or small birds. The design of these micro aerial vehicles is based on bird flight, that is they are ornithopters as they have wings that flap, but so far they don’t tweet.  Birds do it and bees do it so why not educated robots?

Getting them to fly forwards, or to hover and go backwards like a humming bird is now possible. This leaves the next big challenge, which is to get them to fly and perch. Ideally it would be nice for one to flap its way towards its handler and perch on his/her wrist like a peregrine coming to a falconer.

Now it seems that the research engineers at the U of Illinois have cracked it (1,2). They have built their flying robot with a wingspan of 16 inches. Its wings can bend and twist independently and it uses that ability to control its direction. It has a flat tail like a bird, but no vertical tail fin, that would be too un-bird like and would never do.

The feedback control system feeds in corrective information every 50 milliseconds so it is thinking quite quickly. The clever thing is that its thinking about what its doing not in terms of speed over the ground, up or down, nor right and left, but of its physical position in its world – only a room so far as it hasn’t been allowed out yet.

Its algorithms allow it to fly up to a perch, slow, take a head up position and perch on a chair or a hand. So far there is no raucous squawk or pretty birdsong. The aerodynamics are analyzed in the paper (2) so that we have the information to design our thinking ornithopter that could swoop down and perch on the fence to dissuade our neighbors cat from using our seed bed as a litter tray.

The government may have grander plans for it, maybe they could release flocks to mark visits by foreign dignitaries, which would be cheaper and less messy than pigeons.

  1. http://news.discovery.com/tech/perching-robot-bird-120504.html
  2. http://blogs.discovery.com/files/perching-robot.pdf

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