A team of engineers from the prestigious American Stanford University has created robotic clamps that can be attached to drones, transforming the latter into robotic birds capable of grasping objects or perching on various surfaces.
These new capabilities could allow flying robots to save their batteries instead of having to sit still, for example during operations to search for survivors, or help biologists more easily take samples in the forest.
“We want to be able to land anywhere, which is why it is exciting from an engineering and robotics point of view,” said David Lentink, co-author of a paper on this innovation published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics.
It is not an easy task
As is often the case with robotics, this project was inspired by the behavior of animals, in this case the way birds land and cling to branches, to overcome technical difficulties.
But imitating these birds, whose millions of years of evolution allow them to cling to branches of different sizes or shapes, sometimes covered with lichen or slippery from the rain, is not an easy task.
To this end, the Stanford team used high-speed cameras to study how small parrots land on perches that vary in size and material: wood, foam, sandpaper, and Teflon. The poles were also equipped with sensors that recorded the force with which the birds landed and took off again.
The scientists found that while the landing motion was the same in every situation, the parrots used their legs to adapt to the variations they encountered.
The legs of the peregrine falcon as a model
More specifically, birds wrap their claws around their perches and otherwise use soft, pleated pads to ensure good adhesion.
In order to support a small drone with four propellers, the scientists designed its clamps based on the model of the legs of the peregrine falcon.
The structure, made with a 3D printer, includes motors and fishing line such as muscles and tendons.
The mechanism takes 20 milliseconds to connect, and an accelerometer tells the robot that the landing process is complete.
Finally, an algorithm allows the mechanical bird to balance on the branch.
The robotic bird has managed to grab objects thrown at it, such as tennis balls, and land in real-life conditions in the forests of the northwestern United States.
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