Scientists build the first “ornithopter” that can fly and land like a bird

Scientists have built the first bird-like robot that can land like a real bird. A bird landing on a branch makes the maneuver seem simple, but it actually involves an extremely delicate balance of timing, high impact forces, speed and precision – and no flapping wing robot (ornithopter) has been able to master this until now. Raphael Zufferey, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), built and tested his ornithopter in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Seville, Spain. Once the ornithopter masters autonomous landing on a branch, it has the potential to perform complex tasks and make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) much more versatile. The technical problems involved in landing an ornithopter on a pole without external commands required addressing many factors that nature already masters. It had to be able to decelerate significantly when touching down while still maintaining flight. Finally, the robot had to be able to perceive its surroundings and the perch in front of it in relation to its own position, speed and trajectory. For this purpose, it is equipped with a fully-fledged on-board computer and navigation system as well as an external motion capture system for position determination. The ornithopter’s leg claw has also been finely calibrated to smooth out the up-and-down oscillations of flight and close quickly and firmly once it’s on the ground – a perfect landing.

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