Scientists build first 'ornithopter' that can fly and land like a bird

Raphael Zufferey/University of Seville/EPFL/GRIFFIN project/Cover Images

European scientists have built the first bird-like robot that can land like a true avian.

A real bird landing on a branch makes the manoeuvre look simple, but in fact, it involves an extremely delicate balance of timing, high-impact forces, speed, and precision.

It's a move so complex that no flapping-wing robot (ornithopter) has been able to master it, until now.

Raphael Zufferey from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) built and tested his ornithopter in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Seville, Spain - where the 700-gram ornithopter itself was developed.

"Once an ornithopter can master landing autonomously on a tree branch, then it has the potential to carry out specific tasks, such as unobtrusively collecting biological samples or measurements from a tree," Zufferey explained.

He added that the ability to land on a perch could provide a more efficient way for ornithopters to recharge using solar energy, potentially making them ideal for long-range missions.

The engineering problems involved in landing an ornithopter on a perch without any external commands required managing many factors that nature has already so perfectly balanced. It had to be able to slow down significantly as it perched, while still maintaining flight. The claw needed to be strong enough to grasp the perch and support the weight of the robot, without being so heavy that it cannot be held aloft.

The researchers achieved all this by equipping the ornithopter with a fully onboard computer and navigation system, which was complemented by an external motion-capture system to help it determine its position. The claw was designed to absorb the robot's forward momentum upon impact and to close quickly and firmly to support its weight. Once perched, the robot remains on the perch without energy expenditure.