Video of the week: Festo’s bionic swift takes flight

Engineers at German automation giant Festo have demonstrated a bionic swift claimed to be able to mimic the incredible flight manoeuvres of this most agile of birds.

According to Festo, the use of lightweight structures is key to the agility of the robot bird, which despite having a body length of 44.5 centimetres and a wingspan of 68 centimetres weighs just 42 grams .

In order to replicate natural flight as closely as possible, the wings of the BionicSwifts are modelled closely on real bird feathers, with the individual lamellae made from an ultra-lightweight, flexible but very robust foam, and overlapping each other.

Connected to a carbon quill, these individual lamellae fan out during the wing upstroke, allowing air to flow through the wing. This means the birds require less power to propel the wing upwards. The lamellae then close during the downstroke to provide the flying robot with a more powerful flight. According to Festo, this close replication of bird wings gives the BionicSwift a better flight profile than previous efforts to develop beating wing systems.

The bird’s body contains the compact construction for the wingflapping mechanism, the communication technology, the control components for wing flapping and the elevator, the tail. A brushless motor, two servo motors, the battery, the gear unit and various circuit boards are installed in the smallest of spaces. Through the intelligent interaction of the motors and mechanical systems, the frequency of the wing beats and the elevator for the various manoeuvres can be precisely adjusted.

Meanwhile, the coordination of the birds is made possible by radio-based indoor GPS with ultra-wideband technology (UWB). Several radio modules are mounted in the space, forming fixed anchors that locate each other and define the controlled airspace. Each bird is equipped with a radio marker that sends signals to the bases, which can then locate the bird’s exact position and send the data collected to a central master computer, which functions as a navigation system.

The system can use pre-programmed paths to plan and determine routes and flight paths for the birds. If the birds deviate from this flight path, for example due to a sudden change in ambient conditions such as wind or thermals, they immediate correct their flight path by intervening autonomously – without any human pilots.

The technology has been developed by engineers working in Festo’s Bionic Learning Network which, as previously reported by The Engineer, has a long tradition of mimicking mechanisms found in the natural world.

Over the years the group has unveiled a succession of astonishing and frequently beautiful robotic creations – seagulls, jellyfish, dragonflies, and even a robot kangaroo – that have grabbed the headlines and helped cement the perception that this is a company at the top of the innovation game.