It’s one thing to get a robot to fly like a bird, but it’s another thing entirely to get them to perch like one. There are a lot of factors to consider—including speed, timing, impact force, distance estimation, and balance, just to name a few. But judging from these recent photos and videos courtesy of Raphael Zufferey and their colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, a new bar has been set for ornithopters, aka bird-bots.
In an interview with New Scientist, Zufferey explains that the trick to pulling off the stunning feat requires a few augmentations from actual avian behavior. Although the spring-loaded claw grasps a 6cm diameter branch much like its zoological inspirations, the final approach differs from its real-world counterparts. Generally, birds hover above their intended perch for a few moments before touching down. Zufferey’s invention, however, simply slows down as it nears its final destination using optical camera assessments, thus allowing the springed talons time to trigger within just 25 milliseconds, according to the team’s paper published with Nature Communications.
The new ornithopter isn’t quite ready for outdoor use. It currently only operates while “dependent on accurate localization data from a motion capture system,” according to the team’s research paper, and isn’t optimized yet for unpredictable environments. Once those problems are solved, however, researchers think the robot could offer novel alternatives to gathering samples in hard-to-reach locations, or even monitoring noise-sensitive animals in the wild for research purposes. Assuming said animals don’t mind a nosy mechanical bird hovering around them, that is.
In any case, animals are providing inspiration for all manner of advancements in robotics: from six-legged spider rovers set to soon roam Japanese sewer systems to waterborne robots that can now mimic manta rays for faster, lighter, and more energy efficient designs. Birds aren’t the only flying creatures robots can imitate, either. Flying snakes—yes, you read correctly—capable of flattening and undulating their bodies to propel through the air have inspired creative new movements for future bot designs.