This autonomous ornithopter lands and perches on a single claw

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Isn’t it wonderful that there are researchers whose job it is simply to make a robotic bird? That’s certainly the goal of this lab, whose flapping-winged drone or ornithopter has now been outfitted with a grappling claw that allows it to rest on a nearby branch or perhaps even a finger, a capability that could make it much easier. more handy tool.

There’s a good reason why flight evolved over time, making use of flapping wings: they’re much easier for a bird or insect to develop than rotors or jets, for one. Elegance is a hallmark of nature’s designs, and winged creatures fly or glide with a minimum of power and a great deal of grace.

It should come as no surprise that scientists have been striving to recreate winged flight in robotic form for decades, though, like all biomimetic research, they have met with mixed success. But the École Polytechnique Fedérale de Lausanne, one of the most famous technical universities in Switzerland, and the University of Seville are doing quite well.

The European multi-agency project GRIFFIN, let’s admit it first, has the craziest acronym I’ve come across, and I’ve come across many: General Compliance Robotic Aerial Handling System Integration of Fixed and Flapping Wings to Increase Range and Safety. OMG!

The winged flight portion of the project has been in the works for years, with several successes noted on the project’s page and YouTube site. You can see it flapping 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 a long time, but too big a battery and you can’t fly at all! (By the way, it gives one a newfound respect for eagles carrying off cattle.) In the laboratory, a balance must be struck between size and capacity. But the recent addition of a grappling claw might help make that less of a concern.

Image Credits: EPFL/Rafael Zufferey

The claw (a single one, to save weight), like the rest of the ornithopter, needed to be strong but light, capable of grasping perches of different sizes, and working in communication with the GRIFFIN’s perceptual motor. The one they designed is synchronized with the flapping movement, and their design, with a kind of silicone band as the first contact, grips gently but firmly and without shaking the robot.

Just don’t stick your finger in there. Image Credits: EPFL/Rafael Zufferey

“Once an ornithopter can master autonomous landing on a tree branch, then it has the potential to perform specific tasks, such as discreetly collecting biological samples or measurements from a tree. Eventually, it could even land on artificial structures, which could open up more application areas,” said Raphael Zufferey, a postdoctoral fellow at EPFL who currently works at GRIFFIN in Seville.

It’s not just that you can land on a branch and do something; is that he does not have to return to the surface. If you’re using half your energy just to go from ground level to 10 meters high, that really limits what you can do. But if you can land on a branch, charge up a bit (why not have a little solar cell in there?), do some work like take a photo or sample, then hop onto another branch along the way 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 regard; the clamp really opens things up for the project. But they’re not the only ones out there: hummingbird-inspired drones, dragonfly-inspired drones, and even bee-inspired drones are all being developed for different purposes and are in different stages of readiness. Just don’t tell people who say “birds aren’t real”.

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