Perching requires a perfect balance of timing, strength, speed and accuracy. All challenges that almost all birds mastered and no ornithopter (or, if you prefer, winged robot) could tackle. Until now.
Raphael Zufferey, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Engineering of the University of Seville, recently published a paper in Nature Communications (I link it here) to showcase an innovative flying drone that can autonomously perch on a tree branch.
The ability to land this way could provide ai drones efficient options for perching on trees or other structures and recharging using solar energy. Potentially ideal capabilities for long range missions.
A winged robot like you've never seen before
The greatest of the engineering problems involved in landing an ornithopter on a branch is the management of many factors. The winged drone must be able to slow down significantly when landing without plummeting, and have a claw strong enough for gripping but not so heavy that it prevents the robot from flying. "It's one of the reasons we decided to use just one claw instead of two," explains Zufferey.
Last but not least, the robot had to be able to perceive its environment and the branch in front of it in relation to position, speed and trajectory in order to complete the landing successfully.
Did they succeed?
It sure looks like it. With all these factors to consider, Zufferey and his colleagues were able to build not just one, but two ornithopters equipped with "claws" for perching.
Thanks to an integrated computer and a sophisticated navigation system, the scientists transformed the ornithopter into a flying machine capable of precisely determining its position.
The claw was designed to absorb the robot's forward momentum upon impact and to close quickly and firmly upon landing, allowing the winged robot to remain stable on the branch without expending additional energy.
It could be a valuable factor for collecting data in forests, or patrolling areas at risk of fires, or who knows what else without problems of resupply or space to land.
Zufferey is already projected towards the future. Currently, flight tests of the winged drone take place indoors, but the company hopes it can extend its range to operate in more unpredictable conditions and move on to the next stage.
Which? Well, hopefully not the one where they make a robotic sequel to Hitchcock's "birds" :)