Festo’s new SmartBird robot spy drone mimics real seagull

[From Fast Company; more information including images and videos is available here]

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s … a New Seagull-Like Robot Spy Drone!

By Kit Eaton Fri Mar 25, 2011

A new robotic flying drone, styled like a seagull, has arrived on the scene. It doesn’t squawk, poop or steal french fries from your hand, but it’s an example of incredible bio-mimicking design that could be the future of airborne robots.

We’ve met a Festo robot before–a robotic manipulator/gripper arm with a design that’s heavily inspired by elephant trunk muscles–and so we know about the company’s penchant for using bio-inspired thinking in its robot engineering. Festo actually has a whole suite of innovations under its Bionic Learning Network umbrella, but the Smart Bird is the most eye-popping among them.

In fact the robot is so astonishingly convincing in flight it really could pass for a genuine seagull from a distance–a feat of biomimicry that Festo is clearly proud of. The company notes: “Festo has succeeded in deciphering the flight of birds.”

If true, that solves a riddle as old as time. The robot isn’t stuffed with helium, instead it relies on ultra-light materials like carbon-fiber and sensitive control electronics to give it a total mass of around 0.4 kilograms (33% less than an iPad 2). 

The design secret behind its seemingly effortless flight is the fact its wings don’t simply beat up and down like many other ornithopter designs (the technical term for flying drones like this) but they also twist at “specific angles” much like a real gull’s wing will do–positioning the wing tips at the best angle for generating lift and spilling less waste air. An “active articulated torsional drive” is at the heart of it, aided by clever wing joints, accurate sensors for calculating the wing’s position in real time, and a low-weight motor that eats up just 25 watts. The bird even communicates its flight data back to the remote operator in real time, letting them adjust fine parameters like wing torsion in real time to achieve optimum flight.

Enough gum flapping though–check out its astonishing wing flapping in the video [here].

Festo has created a technology demonstrator that illustrates how advanced flying robotics can be: The Smart Bird is highly aerodynamically efficient, even turning its head like real gulls do to refine aerobatic turns, and can take off and land by itself. But if you think about the bigger implications of the robot, they’re pretty astonishing: Imagine a robot spy drone based on this technology, packed with an ultra-lightweight GPS system, more powerful battery and high-precision cameras and microphones. The kind of covert surveillance data it could gather would be impressive–and more stylish than every other spy drone out there.

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