'PigeonBot' could help scientists develop drones that mimic birds

A gannet lands at Bass Rock off the coast of Dunbar

Researchers at Stanford University have been looking into exactly how birds can maintain controlled flight by changing the shape of their wings.

Unlike conventional aircraft wings, which are created to be stiff and rigid, a bird's wings are agile and bendable, and can change shape, angle and even the position of individual feathers, to manoeuvre.

"Birds can dynamically alter the shape of their wings during flight, although how this is accomplished is poorly understood", the researchers wrote in one of the studies they published.

All quadrupedal animals, including dinosaurs, evolved from an ancestor that had five digits at the end of its edges, which became hands, feet, wings, or wings over time. "In flight tests, we found that both asymmetric wrist and finger motion can initiate turn maneuvers-evidence that birds may use their fingers to steer in flight".

Dubbed PigeonBot, the drone is able to extend its wings, bend them and move similar to birds.

The wing of PigeonBot. Credit Units: Lentink Lab / Stanford University Dove Video The windmill with symmetrical wing formatting.

Mechanical engineering professor David Lentink challenged some of his graduate students to "dissect the biomechanics of the avian wing morphing mechanism and embody these insights in a morphing biohybrid robot that features real flight feathers", taking as their model the common pigeon - the resilience of which Lentink admires.

It was locked as the wing expanded, again loose as the wing contracted, reinforcing the extended wing and making it resistant to disturbance.

Lentink added that Velcro-type structures, known by their technical name as "lobate cilia", could have a wide range of fashion, medical and aerospace applications, which he and his colleagues considered as a field for future research.

The PigeonBot in flight.

"We found that the hooked microstructures fasten feathers across bird species except silent fliers whose feathers also lack the Velcro-associated noise". The PigeonBot has 42 degrees of freedom that control the position of 40 elastically connected feathers via four servo-actuated wrist and finger joints. The robotic insight here is that a bird wing is a enormous underactuated system in which a bird doesn't have to constantly actuate each feather individually.

Soft wings of bio-hybrids with wings damaged by wrist and finger movement, Robotics Science (2020). robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup ...

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