Robotic Bird Perches on a Ledge in Engineering First

Never before has an ornithopter been able to land like an actual bird.

Advances in drone technology in recent years have allowed small hovering aircraft to access remote or dangerous areas with greater speed and precision than ever before.

Landing on those surfaces, however, is quite another thing; for help with that, engineers are once again turning to the natural realm for inspiration.

The European Research Council in 2018 awarded a grant for an aerial robotics research project dubbed GRIFFIN — apparently an acronym, of sorts, for “general compliant aerial robotic manipulation system integrating fixed and flapping wings to increase range and safety.”

The project, based at the University of Seville in Spain, is basically working on robotic birds, also known as ornithopters. Although flapping-wing aerial robots have been used for decades, GRIFFIN hopes to advance their capabilities enough to interact with people and safely operate where rotorcrafts can’t.

One major hurdle has apparently been overcome by researchers in Switzerland. An ornithopter at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne became the first device of its kind to “perch:” deftly landing on a surface like a bird.

Although your standard robin makes it look effortless, roboticists face a series of daunting problems replicating perching: slowing down on the approach while still remaining aloft, and being sturdy enough to grab an object without weighing down the entire contraption.

Lausanne engineers went with a single-claw design beneath the robot, which came equipped with an onboard computer and navigation system. An external motion-capture system helps determine position.

In addition to making ornithopters better able to land in tricky spaces, it could also enable them to travel much farther. Because the robot doesn’t expend any energy while perched, it could stop to recharge on solar energy en route to its final destination.

Makes you wonder if maybe that “birds aren’t real” guy wasn’t on to something.

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