Over the years, Festo, a German automation company with a penchant for robots, has designed countless Mother Nature-inspired automatons that swim, hop, and fly like their real-world counterparts. That includes robotic birds, which have now been upgraded with fake feathers that allow the robots to soar through the air with the same manoeuvrability and agility as the real thing.
Nine years ago, Festo revealed a robotic seagull with wings that could bend and flap like the wings on the real-life terrors of the beach. The robotic bird was able to stay aloft by simply flapping its wings without the need for an additional propeller or other thrust mechanism to create forward momentum. It could also steer by adjusting the angle of its tail, and while it was an engineering marvel, its in-air manoeuvrability was limited.
The latest version of Festo’s robotic bird, BionicSwift, is a completely different story. For starters, it’s much smaller, weighing in at just 42 grams while still carrying a battery that’s good for about seven minutes of flight time. One electric motor powers the flapping motion of the robot’s wings, while two others make adjustments to the bird’s artificial foam feathers to perform realistic in-flight manoeuvres.
As with a real bird, when the wings are moving downwards, the overlapping feathers form a single surface to maximise the amount of power being generated to create lift. When the wings are moving up, the feathers fan out to increase air flow which reduced the amount of energy needed for that motion, improving battery life. In the video Festo shared on YouTube, the robot bird is also seen performing a diving manoeuvre where it gracefully falls out of the sky to pick up speed before spreading its wings and climbing once again. It’s eerily lifelike.
Festo has even managed to recreate a bird’s uncanny ability to fly half way around the world while migrating without losing their way by using built-in GPS so the robot knows where it is at all times. But with just seven minutes of flight time, the company doesn’t have to worry about these escaping to South America when the weather gets cold.