Robots that fly are usually small. Aside from that shared feature, they vary widely in design and purpose. Some flap their wings or soar like birds, while others are patterned after land animals. Yet others move in ways that are clearly mechanical, such as quadrotors, also called quadricopters, or ornithopters. Many work in swarms, communicating and cooperating among each other to accomplish different tasks.
Flying robots may assist soldiers in battle as an alternative to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or provide reconnaissance and surveillance for human first responders in post-disaster situations. Others may replace large, imprecise, soil-damaging agricultural equipment for targeted crop dusting, or assemble architectural structures. Many are autonomous, some are remote-controlled, and some can do both: autonomous robots with real-time communication from remote pilots.
Click on the image below to see 11 flying robots in action.
Festo's SmartBird was inspired by a herring gull. It flies, glides, and sails, and can take off, fly, and land autonomously, rising by means of its flapping wings alone. Its articulated torsional drive unit, combined with a complex flight control system in its torso and tail section, lets SmartBird's wings twist at specific angles, as well as beat up and down to optimize airflow use without the use of additional lift devices. Wing position and torsion are monitored by ZigBee-based two-way radio communication, conveying operating data such as battery charge and power consumption, as well as pilot input. Pilots can also adjust torsion control parameters in real time during flight. Festo expects to transfer ideas and insights gained from the functional integration of coupled drive units to the development and optimization of hybrid drive technology. (Source: Festo)
@Ann: Thanks for this. The image of the flying penguins was particularly cool.
Usually, when engineers look to the natural world for inspiration, they look to the animal kingdom. But plants actually provide many examples of mechanical motion, too; to convince yourself of this, just watch how flowers open and close, or how a grapevine climbs up a trellis, or (as an extreme example) how a Venus flytrap catches a bug. A recent book describes a number of plant-inspired aerial technologies, including an electrochemical actuator to control the twist of a helicopter blade.
My personal favorites are the Festo machines, especially AirPenguin and AirJelly, just because they seem so improbable, as well as being beautifully designed. But the part of me that comes from my ME grandpa is fascinated by the miniature swarming helicopters.
I think the key to a lot of this interesting work is the miniaturization that has happened in control systems and powertrains. The smaller cameras and radio devices make this technology quite useful. More applications will develop as the technology progresses. 6 axis motion control, location and obstacle sensors coupled with computer controls and data relays will find many many applications.
Each of these machines might find a different application based on specific requirements. Some will need to go fast, some carry loads, some perform reconnaissance and others might be just for fun.
Thanks for your insightful (as usual) comments, Ivan. The small size and amazing abilities of some of the tiniest robot flyers are impressive, and couldn't be done without much smaller, more efficient and more powerful components, including the ones you mention. Cameras and silicon are kind of obvious in the shrinking component department, but controllers and motors have taken longer to get miniaturized. Regarding the fun element, I found it interesting that at least one of these, MIT's Phoenix, originally started as a redesigned hobbyist craft. I wonder how many others began in a similar way?
It is interesting too see the items that were based on hobbies. My son has an Airhogs RC copter that actually takes downloadable video. At $60 retail, this is great miniatuarization as well as great cost reduction to make the product affordable. On the slideshow, the Air Penguin is pretty neat. Great article.
Ann, I really enjoy your robot stories. The AirBurr looks strange but is really cool robot. I especially like it can stand its self back up and return to flight without human intervention, even though I can't visualize how it can accomplish this. I would have loved to seem that in action.
I've seen several videos of the U of PA robots. I love them playing music.
Ann, although all of the devices are marvelous, I too was taken by the two helium-filled lighter-than-air devices. I would expect very long flight times for these, as power is only used for control and accelleration, and not in keeping the craft airborne. Very stealthy sound-wise also....
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