Even though "Robo Raven" sounds like something that could give Godzilla a run for his money in a cheesy ’70s movie, the creature is very real and represents a new step in the evolution of avian robots. A team of researchers at the University of Maryland's (UMD) Clark School of Engineering has created a robotic bird that can independently flap each wing in order to perform complex aerial maneuvers.
"Real birds are able to precisely control their wing motions, and this enables them to do very impressive aerobatics," S.K. Gupta, a UMD mechanical engineering professor and one of the project's overseers, said in a video. "Accomplishing this in a robotic bird has been very difficult."
After many iterations (the first wing-flapping robot from UMD debuted in 2007), the Robo Raven can finally accomplish many of the same feats as its flesh-and-blood counterparts. A video portrays it flapping its wings simultaneously, gliding, ascending, descending and changing directions — for each motion, the Robo Raven altered its wing motions very subtly.
The Robo Raven requires a human controller, and a skilled handler can make the bird swoop, dive or flip before righting the flying machine. These motions reflect the ways in which actual birds hunt, court and evade predators. The robot's independently controlled wings make these tricks possible; if both wings moved in sync at all times, it could only fly in a straight line.
Creating the Robo Raven was no mean feat, however. Putting together all of the components that a flying bird-bot needs can get heavy, and heavy things are harder to get airborne. The Robo Raven sports an onboard camera as well as enough weight to withstand winds of up to 10 mph.
In order to keep the bird lightweight, researchers 3D-printed their own plastic-polymer components, rather than using heavier metals. This alone wasn't enough, however, and the team programmed the Robo Raven with a number of autonomous subroutines. The robot can measure its own flight efficiency and calculate the optimal levels of thrust and lift. This process takes full advantage of the Robo Raven’s independent wings and makes it easier for a human to control it. [See also: 10 Animal-Inspired Robots]
The Robo Raven might actually be a little too successful for its own good. Because its motions are so realistic, it attracted the attention of a hungry hawk, which promptly swooped down on it and nearly knocked it out of the air. (Check 1:50 on the video for the best — and possibly only — footage of a hawk attacking a robo-bird you'll see all day.)
"[These advancements bring] us a big step closer to faithfully reproducing the way real birds fly," said Gupta. If the technology continues to advance, such robots could prove extremely useful for reconnaissance and surveillance, provided that they steer clear of local feathered predators.
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