Thinking Tech

Video: the robot that flies like a bird

Video: the robot that flies like a bird

Posting in Design

The Festo Smartbird is able to take off, maneuver and land with the oldest of propulsion systems: flapping wings.

Birds may have helped inspire man to take flight, but their particular style of flying--by the power of flapping wings--wasn't much help to early aviators. (Or any aviators since, really.) From Kitty Hawk to O'Hare, and for over 100 years, aircraft have gotten along fine with unmoving wings and separate propulsion systems. We were happy to co-opt the core of birds' Bernoullian wisdom; they could keep the rest for themselves.

Now, the rise of unmanned drones has led to a surge in interest in alternate ways of taking flight, and a number of companies have gotten to work on bird-inspired craft, often with the support of DARPA. But none are as immediately impressive and as uncannily birdlike as the Festo Smartbird, revealed last week:

Here's another video that gives a pretty good idea of how this thing works, including a helpful animation showing how the bird's frame manipulates its shell:

Inside this lil' flapper you'll find a surprisingly modest collection of parts: a two-cell lithium polymer battery, four servos, a cheap MCU LM3S811 microcontroller, a ZigBee-based radio system, a handful of sensors, an accelerometer, a small motor and a handful of other bits and bobs. Aside from the carbon-fiber frame, polyurethane foam lining and a couple of custom-designed pieces, nothing in the Smartbird is particularly unusual or expensive. These apparently cheap parts don't just let the Smartbird fly; they put it in constant two-way communication with its operators, allowing them to keep track of its performance and battery charge, and even take direct control over its movement.

The Smartbird appears to work and it's probably quite affordable. It's an interesting achievement engineers and ornothologists alike. But what is it for, exactly? Most previous research into wing-flapping robots has been initiated by or marketed for the military. Where does this fit into the wider world of drones? According to Festo:

The knowledge acquired in aerodynamics and flow behaviour yields new approaches and solutions for automation...

The applications of coupled drives for linear and rotary movement range from generators that derive energy from water – so-called stroke wing generators – to new actuators in process automation.

Translation? It's really not about the bird.

Festo's core business is process automation (read: manufacturing methods). The company operates a sort of research arm called the Bionic Learning Network, which serves as an incubator for some of its wilder ideas about the future of automation. Past projects have included elephant-trunk-style robotic arms, hovering penguins (seriously!), and a self-flying kite. Each was built with particular automation applications in mind--of the AirPenguin, the company says, "If the 3D Fin Ray structure of the head and tail sections is transferred to the requirements of automation technology, it can be used for instance in a flexible tripod with a very large scope of operation in comparison with conventional tripods"--and none, so far as I can tell, have become standalone products.

Not that there's any problem with that! Festo's Smartbird will likely have an effect on the future of drones and aviation whether or not the company manufactures or licenses it for such. Just don't expect to see this awkward avian approximation in toy stores, or on battlefields, anytime soon.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure