Learning to Fly

German engineering company Festo creates a robot that looks—and flies—like a bird.

 

Since ancient times, people have been fascinated by flight. The Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and Persians all told elaborate stories of man’s attempts to take flight, to get closer to the skies, to meet up with the gods. Yet until the Wright Brothers, almost all manned attempts had failed. And while air travel has evolved from hydrogen balloons to jet packs, we never quite mastered the mechanics of flying like a bird. Until now. German engineering company Festo has successfully deciphered the wing and body language of how a bird takes flight, and the company’s engineers have embodied those natural principles in the world’s first fowl robot, the SmartBird.

Birds become airborne using only the strength of their wings, and they have the ability to stay aloft by navigating air resistance and regulating their motion. Leveraging the minimal use of lightweight materials and a small motor that powers a single drive system with only a few gears, the SmartBird is successfully designed to be an energy efficient adaptation of the gull it is modeled after. Beating its wings up and down and twisting its torso for direction, the SmartBird launches and lands without any additional drive mechanism. It is controlled using ZigBee radio communication that sends messages to an on-the-ground computer that can track the bird’s flight and navigate its movement. For Festo, the SmartBird comes on the heels of its AquaPenguin, a robot that looks and swims like its namesake. By emulating nature so seamlessly, Festo seems to be pioneering the creation of a robotic zoo that gives us a glimpse into nature’s design.

The Festo Corporation is a company specializing in pneumatic and electric drive technology for industrial and process automation. Festos' lead designer, Markus Fischer, presented, the SmartBird at TEDGlobal 2011.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson and the Festo Corporation / Courtesy of TED

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