Festo’s SmartBird

Earlier in the semester, I wrote my first blog post on “A Robot that Flies like a Bird.” The post was inspired by a video I saw last summer. Within the video, the head of the team Markus Fischer introduced the world to the first ever robot that flies like a bird; or so we thought.

Last week in class, the subject of my initial post came up in discussion. Mostly, we talked about rather interesting material which I had already covered. However, one subject that we touched on really stuck with me: this was not actually the first robot modeled after birds’ flapping wings. The first successful robot was constructed several decades ago in the mid 20th Century. Unfortunately, this invention went mostly unnoticed. It was not until recently that anyone has truly received full and legitimate credit for copying flapping flight. The reason is that previous designs, successful or unsuccessful, have merely imitated the flapping motions of birds. Fresto’s SmartBird actually copies those motions.

In order to generate lift and propulsion/thrust simultaneously, the SmartBird employs some incredibly sophisticated technology. The robot contains a small electric motor that spins two gears. These gears, located within the “body” cause the wings to move up and down. While in motion, the wings themselves twist, exactly the same way a real bird’s wings do. The head is synched to the body via electronic motors and cables. This synchronization and flexibility enable the robot to maneuver impressively well through the air. The wings themselves also flex.

One of the reasons the bird can maintain such impressive flight patterns is that it directly communicates with its operator in real time. If something goes wrong and is not functioning properly, the operator will instantly know and can adjust accordingly to ensure the bird stays in the air.

Because of the technology used, and the team’s ability to decipher and replicate birds’ flapping motion, the SmartBird has 80% aerodynamic efficiency. In other words, it is essentially as efficient in the air as the herring gull that it was designed after. While it may not be the first airborne robot that is modeled after the flapping motion of a bird, it is by far the best. Nothing has come close in terms of accuracy and efficiency. Fresto has earned the right to claim they mastered and replicated birds’ flight before anyone else.


One Comment

Lorena Barba posted on October 21, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Hi Charlie,
I think you are right: Festo’s SmartBird has come closer than anything to the actual way birds fly. It is really clear when you watch the videos of this robot bird flying. I think they were able to do it because they are such masters at mechanisms and automation.