Studying the biology of wing, "where the birds use wrist when the wings are retracted and fingers when the wings are extended to control the fly".
Since the dawn of the aviation era, inventors have tried to build bats like birds, whose morphological blades allow faster, stricter turns and more efficient sliding. It turns out that the way birds fly is not very well understood, since the relationship between the dynamic shape of the wing and the positions of the individual feathers is very complex.
Ultimately, the motions bird wings make are seen as far superior to those of an aircraft: "It actually enables birds to fly further, longer, maneuver much better", says David Lentink, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.
In fact, the only birds who do not have the feather-fastening system are night-hunting predators like owls, who need to catch prey unawares in the silence of the dark, and appear to have made an evolutionary trade-off, swapping greater maneuverability for stealth. "I chose the common pigeon", he said, "a bird that I admire for its flight abilities in gusts and turbulence in cities, a wind environment in which aerial robots struggle". The team then used what they found to create the PigeonBot. Instead, all the feathers follow wrist and finger motion automatically via the elastic ligament that connects the feathers to the skeleton.
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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.
The new robot is described Thursday in Science Robotics. Roboticists have tried to replicate feathery fliers for nearly two decades, but these efforts have been hindered by use of rigid feather-like panels and a lack of understanding of the skeletal and muscular mechanics behind birds' highly morphable wings.
PigeonBot's wing. You can see that the feathers are joined by elastic connections so moving one moves others. Certification: Lentink Lab / Stanford University Video of PigeonBot wings formatting in response to flexion and extension of wrist and finger angle in an aerodynamic tunnel. Lentink is working on a tail to match the wings, and separately in a new bio-inspired robot inspired by hawks, which could also have legs and claws. Compared with feathered wings, those harder wings could be risky to humans.
"The little active morphing wing principles presented here can inspire more economical and simple morphing wing designs for planes and robots with more degrees of freedom than previously considered", the researchers write in the Science Robotics article.