As much as they tried, even the most advanced robotists on Earth struggle to recreate the effortless elegance and efficiency with which birds fly through the air.
That dream came a step closer to reality on Thursday after researchers from Stanford University announced that they had studied the wings of common dead pigeons and then used their findings to construct a radio-controlled "PigeonBot 40" wing. really feathers.
That's what the researchers who built PigeonBot, a robotic pigeon with actual feathered wings, seem to be betting.
The discovery by Stanford University, was described as "pretty cool" by bird experts, who said they knew that individual feathers contained specialised structures to help maintain their form, but had not realised they could interlock to form fixed wings.
A team of scientists from Stanford University has developed a pigeon feather robot to better understand the mechanisms of bird flying. The team then used what they found to create the PigeonBot.
Soft wings of bio-hybrids with wings damaged by wrist and finger movement, Robotics Science (2020). robotics.sciencemag.org/lookup ...
"Whenever the skeleton moves, the feathers are redistributed passively through compliance of the elastic connective tissue at the feather base".
The scientists built a robot with real pigeon feathers, whose faux wrists and fingers can morph its wing shape - as they had observed in the pigeon cadavers.
It was locked as the wing expanded, again loose as the wing contracted, reinforcing the extended wing and making it resistant to disturbance.
"These tiny, microscopic micro-structures that are between feathers lock them together as soon as they separate too far apart, and a gap is about to form". The finding of "directional Velcro" between flight feathers informs the evolution of modern birds and their winged ancestors, and could be explored for fashion, medical and aerospace applications, the authors say.
It's worth noting that the PigeonBot doesn't incorporate something you might associate with birds' wings - flapping.
The experiments that the researchers conducted, reported by Science News, showed that the angle between the wing joints greatly impacted the alignment of the feathers in the wing. The angle of the flight feathers dictates the shape of the wing.
"The underactuated morphing wing principles presented here may inspire more economical and simpler morphing wing designs for aircraft and robots with more degrees of freedom than previously considered", write the researchers in the Science Robotics paper.
Researchers found that the roll of the PigeonBot could be controlled with movement of the finger joint on the wing alone.