This autonomous ornithopter lands and perches on a single claw – TechCrunch
Isn’t it wonderful that there are researchers whose job is simply to make a robotic bird? That’s certainly the goal of this lab, whose flapping-wing drone, or ornithopter, is now equipped with a grasping claw to let it rest on a nearby branch or maybe even a finger – an ability that could make it a much more practical tool.
There’s a good reason flight has evolved over time, using flapping wings – they’re much simpler for a bird or insect to grow than rotors or jets, for one thing. Elegance is a feature of nature’s designs, and winged creatures fly or soar with minimal energy and great grace.
It should come as no surprise that scientists have striven to recreate wing-flapping flight in robotic form for decades, though like all biomimetic research, it has met with mixed success. But the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne – one of Switzerland’s famous technical universities – and the University of Seville are doing quite well.
The European multi-institutional GRIFFIN project, let’s face it first, has the wackiest backronym I’ve ever come across, and I’ve come across many: General Compliant Aerial Robotic Manipulation System Integrating fixed and flapping wings for increase range and safety. My God!
The winged flight component of the project has been ongoing for years, with various successes noted on the project’s YouTube page and site. You can see it floating in this recent video.
But the problem with this method, as with many flights, is energy. Not enough power and you can’t fly for long — but too big a battery and you can’t fly at all! (Incidentally, this gives new respect to eagles carrying off livestock.) In the laboratory, a balance must be struck between size and capacity. But the recent addition of a grab claw might help make that less of a concern.
The claw (just one, to save weight), like the rest of the ornithopter, had to be strong but light, able to grab perches of varying size and work in communication with the GRIFFIN’s perceptual engine. The one they designed synchronizes with the movement of the beat, and its design, with a kind of silicone strip as the first contact, grips the robot gently but firmly and without shaking.
“Once an ornithopter can master landing autonomously on a tree branch, it has the potential to perform specific tasks, such as stealth collection of biological samples or measurements on a tree. Eventually, it could even land on man-made structures, which could open up new areas of application,” said Raphael Zufferey, an EPFL postdoc currently working on GRIFFIN in Seville.
It’s not just that he can land on a branch and do something; is that it does not have to come back to the surface. If you’re using half your energy just to get from ground level to 10 meters high, it really limits what you can do. But if you can land on a branch, recharge a bit (why not put a small solar cell there?), do some work like take a photo or a sample, then jump to another branch in front and do the same… it’s starting to look less like a tech demo and a lot more like a capable robot bird.
Zufferey hopes to continue development in this direction; the clamp really opens things up for the project. But they are not alone: hummingbird-inspired drones, dragonfly-inspired drones, and even bee-inspired drones are being developed for different purposes and are in different stages of preparation. Don’t talk to “birds aren’t real”.