Most of us see birds every day. Go look outside your nearest window and chances are you’re not going to have to wait long before you spot a feathered friend cruising by. Despite that, scientists have long struggled with replicating the flight mechanics that birds are naturally blessed with.
Building a “bird robot” that flies with fixed wings is easy enough, but creating something that bends and flaps its wings like a real animal is surprisingly difficult. Now, a team of researchers has taken a huge step toward achieving that lofty goal with a new artificial avian aptly named PigeonBot.
So, how do you go about replicating the wings of a pigeon? You use real pigeon wings, of course! The researchers, who describe their work in a new paper published in Science Robotics, took an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to constructing the PigeonBot.
They built wings that bend in two places, closely resembling the wings of actual birds, carefully noting the angles at which real bird wings move during flight. Then, rather than trying to beat nature at its own game, they used real, actual pigeon feathers (taken from deceased birds, of course) to fill in the wings.
The aim of the project wasn’t to just create lifelike bird bots that scientists could send into the skies for fun, but rather to give researchers an easier way to study how the wings of a pigeon work to keep it aloft. That plan has apparently worked splendidly, as a second study using the robotic wings revealed one of the secrets of how pigeon wings move during flight.
The researchers in that study, published in Science, explain that the feathers themselves have “hooks” that latch on to neighboring feathers as the bird flaps its wings. These hooks are so small that you can’t see them with the naked eye, but they were revealed using microscope technology.