We are living in a Golden Age for robotics, or more accurately, robotic biomimicry. If there be any doubt, consider the numerous, recent robotic engineering projects taking their lead from Nature — especially the small and non-vertebrate kind — from earthworms and fleas to sea jellies and ant colonies.
It’s no surprise that engineers would look to some of Nature’s smallest critters for inspiration, after all, nature has perfected these creatures’ movements and behaviors over millions, even billions of years. Each creature is remarkably “elegant” and efficient in its naturally-selected design; they are perfect, and perfected robot “models”.
But imitating nature through robotic engineering is a tricky thing; seemingly simple behaviors can make for complex engineering challenges. Take for example that darting denizen of marshlands everywhere, the dragonfly (of the infra-order Anisoptera (Greek, meaning “uneven wings”, because the hindwing is broader than the forewing).
The dragonfly can hover almost motionlessly like a humming bird, glide without beating its wings, and rapidly alter its flight path and speed. All of these behaviors depend upon the insect’s ability to instantly modify its wings’ shape (having two pairs of wings) so as to take advantage of what’s called “unstable flight” (an instability in air flow under the wings that provides added lift).
No easy feat, to be sure.
But recently a team of German robot engineers from a company called Festo has succeeded in replicating the graceful and precise flight (but not the actual size) of the dragonfly with a bio-mimicking robot called BionicOpter. Each of the seagull-sized bot’s four wings can flap independently and at different rates of speed.
According to the Festo website press release,
“The BionicOpter is an ultralight flying object. Just like its model in nature, the BionicOpter can fly in all directions and execute the most complicated flight manoeuvers. The BionicOpter’s ability to move each of its wings independently enables it to slow down and turn abruptly, to accelerate swiftly and even to fly backwards. This means that for the first time there is a model that can master all the flight conditions of a helicopter, plane and even a glider. Despite its complexity, the highly integrated system can be operated easily and intuitively via a smartphone.”
Yes, there’s an app for that.
Based in Germany, Festo is primarily an engineering-driven, automation process company that sells pneumatic and electric transducers. It also oversees a research-partnering program called the Bionic Learning Network which collaboratively explores “ideas and initiatives which go beyond the core business of automation.”
One of the more notable bio-mimicking robotic products of this program (from 2010) is SmartBird, an ornithopter bionically modeled on the herring gull’s natural wingbeat. Unlike other flapping robo-wings, SmartBird can actually take off, fly and land by itself. Its wings, like the BionicOpter’s, can deliberately warp due to an “active torsion mechanism”, giving the insectoid bot both lift and propulsion.
Some information for this post originally came from the Sci Am blog post Robotic Dragonfly Creates Buzz